How should Chatham County grow? Zoning divides the candidates

Chatham County commissioner candidate Neill Lindley brought one of his dairy cows to the historic courthouse in Pittsboro to demonstrate his rural heritage.
Chatham County commissioner candidate Neill Lindley brought one of his dairy cows to the historic courthouse in Pittsboro to demonstrate his rural heritage. jjohnson@heraldsun.com

Growth and how voters feel about it could decide the races for two seats on the Chatham County Board of Commissioners.

With more than 71,000 residents, the county’s population has risen about 10 percent since 2010. More growth is coming as Chatham Park adds another 60,000 people over the next 30 years.

The board’s Democratic majority brought county-wide zoning to Chatham County in 2016 as a way to manage growth. Republicans say it went too far.

Incumbent Democrats Diana Hales and Jim Crawford have opponents, while incumbent Republican Walter Petty is running unopposed.

One race is a rematch of the 2014 election when Hales, the current chairwoman, unseated Brian Bock, who was then chairman. Bock’s trying to return to the board.

The other contested race has Crawford taking on political newcomer Neill Lindley, who is running for office for the first time.

Republican challengers Bock and Lindley favor more rural autonomy, while Hales and Crawford see value in the county-wide zoning implemented under their watch.

Commissioners live in the districts they represent but are elected by county-wide vote. Early voting began Wednesday. The election ends Nov. 6.

Crawford vs. Lindley

Lindley, a fourth-generation dairy farmer from Snow Camp, said he is running to unseat Crawford in District 4 because of the zoning regulations.

When the commissioners adopted county-wide zoning in 2016, they created 10 districts that range from low-density residential to heavy industrial. Most of the county outside of Pittsboro and Siler City is zoned only for residential with no more than one home per acre. Farms are exempt from zoning regulations under state law, but any other development beyond a single-family house needs the commissioners’ approval.

Chatham County Commissioner Jim Crawford (left) is being challenged by first-time candidate Neill Lindley.

“I feel like zoning, at the end of the day, if I wanted to develop the property across the road from my farm, I feel like I have the right to say what I want to do with it,” Lindley said.

He would like to roll back some of the regulations to diversify development.

To demonstrate his rural heritage, Lindley brought one of his cows to the historic Chatham County Courthouse this week for a rally. He considered bringing another cow but decided against it because she was a little bit ornery.

“She started bucking, and I said to myself, ‘If I get her in Pittsboro, she’s going to run down the road and I’m probably not going to see her again.’” Lindley said. “That would have been awful.”

Crawford is seeking his second term after previously serving on the county’s planning board and the recreational advisory committee. He said planning for the growth that’s coming to Chatham County with countywide zoning was the responsible thing to do. Zoning is about the details, he said.

“Managing the details and my track record on policy are my strengths,” Crawford said.

Crawford, 52, owns Chatham Cider Works in Pittsboro and is a former assistant history professor at N.C. A&T State University.

Hales-Bock rematch

In District 3, Bock and Hales are squaring off again.

Bock, 53, served on the board from 2011-14, including a stint as chairman. Hales, 71, defeated him in 2014 and was elected chairwoman.

Republican Brian Bock (left) is challenging Democratic incumbent Diana Hales in District 3 of the Chatham County Commissioners.

Zoning also is Bock’s priority.

Bock, who works as a portfolio manager with BB&T, said the current board went too far when it made undeveloped property R-1 for zoning purposes. It makes property more difficult to develop because most owners now have to go through an approval process to build more than a house, he said. It is an impediment to growth in the county, which could diversify the county’s tax collections, he said. Currently, most of the county’s tax revenue comes from residential property taxes.

“Our commissioners have failed to prioritize expanding our commercial tax base to help pay our obligations,” Bock said. “It is like a tax bomb ready to explode. And nobody’s interested in defusing it.”

Hales, a retired state employee, said zoning is a tool that protects property owners and gives them a voice in what happens in their neighborhood. It also allows the county to have a say in how certain heavy industries do business in Chatham, she said. She is committed to keeping energy explorers that use hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, out of the county in order to protect water quality and Jordan Lake.

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