Chatham County

Stronger water, tree protections sought for Chatham Park

Part of the more than 7,000 acres east and south of Hank Chapel Christian Church near Pittsboro, N.C. will be part of the Chatham Park development that could bring more than 60,000 new residents to Chatham County once it is completed. Photographed on January 15, 2014.
Part of the more than 7,000 acres east and south of Hank Chapel Christian Church near Pittsboro, N.C. will be part of the Chatham Park development that could bring more than 60,000 new residents to Chatham County once it is completed. Photographed on January 15, 2014.

Some environmental advocates want to see stronger water and tree protections in Chatham Park, the 7,120 acre mixed-use development planned near the Haw River.

The Pittsboro Town Board is reviewing 12 categories of guidelines to flesh out the Chatham Park Master Plan approved in 2014.

The additional elements cover the phasing of development; what constitutes open space; and how tree protection, landscaping and stormwater will be handled. They also cover signs, parking, lighting, affordable housing, transportation, public art and public facilities.

Elaine Chiosso, the Haw riverkeeper and the executive director of the conservation group the Haw River Assembly, told the Town Board the stormwater-control provisions are inadequate to protect water quality in the Haw River.

She pushed for protection of ephemeral streams, the temporary rivulets that appear after rainfall.

“If we don’t protect ephemeral streams, they’ll be bulldozed,” she said. “Stormwater controls will have to be built to deal with that flow of water, but it’s so much better to let nature control the flow of water through natural ephemeral streams.”

She argued the master plan should incorporate Chatham County’s standards for stream buffers and stormwater control, saying the county regulations are more rigorous than the plans put forward by Preston Development, which are based on Pittsboro’s town code.

“Chatham County has 30-foot buffers on ephemeral streams, and we think that Chatham Park should be held to at least as high a standard as the county it’s located in,” Chiosso said.

Tree rules

The open-space provision calls for preserving at least 1,320 acres of woodland, or roughly 18 percent, much of which would be stream buffers, wetlands, steep slopes and 100-year floodplains.

Chiosso, by contrast, lobbied for preserving 2,895 acres, up to 40 percent of the total acreage. She argued against the tree- protection provisions, which as currently written would allow developers to clear up to 90 percent of trees on a site approved for a subdivision, or, in some cases, clear all trees and replant after construction.

Pittsboro resident Jessamyn Hyatt agreed.

“Tree-protection areas should mean maintaining the existing trees, not cutting down and replanting, especially along the Haw River,” Hyatt said. “It is my strong feeling this is not a forward thinking 21st century development, but it’s deeply 20th century with the same old style of scraping and paving and maintaining the bare minimum of existing landscape.”

The plan would allow the developer to offer payment to the town in lieu of open space in some instances, a provision Hyatt asked the board to reject.

“I believe that the town should not grant payment in lieu of open space under any circumstances,” said Hyatt. “There is no amount of payment that could compensate for the loss of wilderness.”

Collective input

Chuck Smith, vice president of planning at Preston Development, was on hand to discuss other additional elements related to parking, lighting, signage and the pace of development, but did not comment on the environmental concerns raised in the public hearing.

“Preston Development looks forward to the town commissioners’ discussion and decision on April 24th,” Smith wrote in a statement. “We have carefully considered the collective input provided to the town over the past year and responded to those concerns in our response to the elements committee, public hearing and planning board comments. We remain excited about the opportunity to bring Chatham Park to Pittsboro and the greater community.”

The additional elements, along with yet-to-be-developed small-area plans and a future development agreement, will set the course for 30 years of growth in what’s estimated to be the largest planned community in North Carolina. Once completed, Chatham Park will include five separate villages, 22,000 residences and 22 million square feet of commercial space including schools, offices, businesses, research facilities, and retail.

The 12 additional elements have been reviewed by a citizen advisory committee and the town’s planning board. The board of commissioners is in the middle of its review, a process Pittsboro Planning Director Jeff Jones described as a back and forth negotiation between town officials and developers.

“Chatham Park proposes the language and the town (gives) feedback on the elements so that Chatham Park can respond by either making edits or having a discussion with the town on why their proposal reaches the level of exceptional design, character, and quality,” Jones wrote in an email.

Pittsboro commissioners decided not to vote on any of the elements at their last meeting in March, saying they needed more time to read through the proposals. The board will revisit the elements at their April 24 meeting.

Elizabeth Friend: