Chatham County

The people and cars are coming to Pittsboro. Where will they fill up the tank?

A developer wants to put a new gas station on this property at 165 East St., near downtown Pittsboro.
A developer wants to put a new gas station on this property at 165 East St., near downtown Pittsboro.

In a few short years when the town population surges, the fight over a new gas station near downtown Pittsboro will be a distant memory.

It will be a place to fill up, to grab a cold drink and a bag of chips. It will be a local landmark.

Opposition to the proposed Eagles gas station at 165 East St., however, has stalled the redevelopment of the old car dealership lot.

The delay is only temporary. The town board has no choice under town ordinances and state law but to grant approval, unless the town wants to end up in court.

That's a prospect that board members Jay Farrell and John Bonitz want to avoid.

"The last thing I want the town to be doing is spending money defending a lawsuit," Farrell said.

The project approval has been delayed once and returns to the board Monday, April 23.

Growing population

Manish Ghandi of Eagles Management Corp. in Raleigh wants to meet a demand he sees coming to Pittsboro. He sells gasoline and snacks at nine other stations in the Triangle.

The store he wants to bring to Pittsboro, which already has six other gas stations within sight of the courthouse at the center of town, will serve a growing population associated with the development of Chatham Park. During the next 25 years, Pittsboro will grow from just over 4,200 people to as many as 60,000, according to estimates.

People mean cars. And cars will need gasoline. The gas station also will have a cafe and a car wash.

Other developers have also encountered delays. Even "simple" parts of Tim Smith and Julian "Bubba" Rawl's plan for the 7,100 acre Chatham Park still await approval after three years, Smith said.

The Eagles project seemed poised for approval at the board's last meeting. The town's planning staff said it met all the zoning and development criteria. Approval usually comes quickly at that point.

But as the board discussed the project, it became evident some had received emails from people against the gas station. Farrell said his inbox was full of complaints about noise, traffic and the project's impact on downtown's historic character.

Instead of approving the project, the board tabled the matter until its next meeting.

"It's frustrating," Ghandi said. "It's like they're filibustering."

Rawl has seen delays with his projects in Cary, Apex, Fuquay-Varina and Raleigh. Although his projects are on a much larger scale, Rawl said he doesn't fault the Pittsboro board for taking the slow approach with Ghandi's project.

"I've worked with a lot of boards and this one is just a little more tentative," Rawl said. "They've heard how other towns have grown and they're being careful."

On the horizon

Gaining approval for future projects in downtown may prove more difficult.

The Eagles project is going through an approval process that board members say needs improving. There currently are four steps in the "use permitted by right" process for Pittsboro:

Developer submits the application and initial plan

Town staff review the plan

Planning Board makes a recommendation

Town Board of Commissioners makes a final decision

Eagles made it through the first three steps. From there, the board's options are limited. State law prevents towns from arbitrarily denying approval of projects. Pittsboro cannot restrict development by requiring property owners to consider traffic impact. It can't regulate development in its historic district, either. That would require additional ordinances, which Pittsboro has yet to adopt.

Board member Michael Fiocco said an overlay district ordinance is in the works but it would not apply retroactively.

Pittsboro is working on a unified development ordinance to address the changing nature of development in the town.

"There are times that we struggle with certain aspects of projects and voice those concerns to the town planner," planning board member Brian Taylor said. "As they are usually in attendance, the town board and mayor are made aware of these concerns."

Once it receives town board approval, Eagles must obtain the necessary local and state permits regulating the construction and operation of a gas station and cafe.