Public packs hearing on Chatham Park proposal

May. 20, 2014 @ 10:28 PM

The proposal for the large-scale Chatham Park development packed the town’s historic courthouse with people on Tuesday, some speaking for the project’s potential to create jobs and others asking for more details and environmental protections.

The meeting was the third public hearing held by the Pittsboro Board of Commissioners since developers submitted the project proposal to the town last year.

The developer, a limited liability company connected to Cary-based Preston Development Co., has requested to rezone 7,120 undeveloped acres east of the town.

They want to build 22 million square feet of non-residential space and 22,000 residential units.

If allowed to move forward, the project would be three times the current size of the town.

More than 150 people packed into the room’s seats and stood around the room’s perimeter. There were business leaders and others who spoke in support of the project for its economic development potential, residents against it for its impact on the county’s character and environment, and others who asked for more plan details and commitments.

Before the meeting began, Chatham County resident Robert Bianco set up signs in support of the project while wearing a green T-shirt printed with the words “Go Chatham Park.” Bianco said he runs a construction company and restaurant, and supports the project for its potential to help business.

“We need more people, we need more business, we need more jobs, just to try to keep our business going,” he said.

Among the 74 people who signed up to speak was John Oliver, who asked for Pittsboro board members to be “strong leaders” and to ask the developer for environmental, economic, air and water quality commitments.

Holly Norton said she and her husband moved to the community about a year and a half ago from northern New Jersey, outside of New York City. She said they’re in “heaven” here with so little traffic.

And while Norton said she believes the development is coming, she has concerns about the development moving forward with details provided so far.

“I’m not opposed to Chatham Park, but what frightens me is in this place for this development…there are no details,” she said. “You have got to get everything here in writing. I’m telling you – I have seen this happen.”

Elaine Chiosso, executive director of the Haw River Assembly, said the sheer scope and size of the project raises “questions” about the impact to water.

“We don’t think the Chatham Park (developers are) offering you a plan that preserves critical environmental resources,” she said. She wants to see conservation plans for flood plains, wetlands, heritage areas and other lands.

Mary Phyllis Horn, a resident of Pittsboro, spoke against the project.

“I’m concerned about maintaining the reason why all of us feel comfortable here,” she said.  “That has to do with nature, that has to do with the forests, that has to do with the open space.”

Among the business leaders in support was Chris Ehrenfeld, board secretary for Chatham Economic Development Corp.

He said that Chatham County is a bedroom community with a tax base made up overwhelmingly of residential and agricultural taxpayers. The development would help the county attract a major employer and business to shift to a “more sustainable business model,” he said.

“Chatham Park is about opportunity and growth,” he said.

Stan Abrams, who said he’s worked in real estate development for many years, spoke for the project, explaining that he’d rather see the master-planned Chatham Park project than piecemeal development.

“You could not, in my opinion, have a better developer going forward,” he said.

Larry Ballas of Apex said he favors the plan. He said he believes that the only direction Cary can grow is westward, close to the county border.

“If Pittsboro doesn’t have a dream, a one, five, 10, 30-year plan, you’re going to be left behind,” he said. “Because Cary and Apex …will develop all those areas for you.”

Commissioner Beth Turner said the proposal came back to a public hearing because of revisions to the master plan made in response to the findings of a consultant. After a meeting in November, the board voted 4-1 to table the proposal and to hire the consultant to review the plan.

The consultant, The Lawrence Group, said they found “significant deficiencies” in the plan that would preclude a decision about “such a significant project,” along with specific recommendations.

The report said that while not all questions on details, including phasing of public infrastructure including streets and water, need to be answered at this stage, they also suggested “as one of the next phases” of the project, a development agreement to fill in the gaps.