Chatham Park

Cary-based Preston Development Co., in the form of Chatham Park Investors, LLC, want to build a vast, mixed-use development in undeveloped eastern Chatham County. Chatham Park would cover over 7,500 pristine acres adjacent to the Jordan Lake reservoir, the Haw River and the town of Pittsboro. It would be the 5th largest planned development in the history of the United States since World War II.

Chatham Park Investors (e.g. the Investors) has been steadily acquiring land in Chatham County since 2006, but first submitted rezoning requests and master plan proposal to the town in May, 2013.

The Chatham Park proposal includes five mixed-use “village centers,” surrounded mostly by residential development with potentially 667 acres open space or parkland. The plan includes between 22,000 and 28,000 new homes and more than 13 million square feet for commercial development.  In January 2013 the Investors proposed a new Planned Development District (PDD) as a vehicle to govern the review, approval, and implementation of their proposed development. It was approved by the Town Board in April 2013 with little or no public input or knowledge.  It grants the Investors substantial flexibility without requiring environmental, fiscal, social-economic and traffic impact assessments, despite the fact that Chatham Park would be the largest master-planned, mixed-usedevelopment in the history of North Carolina and the sixth largest in post-World War United States.

The implications for the small rural town of  Pittsboro (4,000 population) are staggering. Bringing somewhere between 55,000 and 70,000 new residents to Pittsboro, Chatham Park would increase the town’s population density by a factor of about 14.  That’s more than double the density of Cary today, equivalent to squeezing the entire population of Chapel Hill in to half its current space and puts Pittsboro on par with Baltimore, MD or Boston, MA.  For all that, however, the developers assert they intend to preserve the rural, small town character of Pittsboro.

The Independent Weekly (Indy”) points out: the town’s 17-employee police department would swell to 168, according to the builder’s master plan. Pittsboro, which relies on area volunteer fire departments, would likely require a paid municipal fire department and the construction of multiple stations.  The number of students at Chatham County schools, hovering just above 8,000 today, would increase to 18,000, requiring the construction of eight elementary, two middle and two high schools.  The assumption is that these infrastructure improvements will be funded through taxes on Chatham Park residents and businesses.

Substantial new water and waste water facilities would need to be funded and constructed by the builders for later ownership and staffing by the town.

According to the Preston Development Co. website, Chatham Park is envisioned as a sequel to Research Triangle Park, which they claim has only a few hundred acres of remaining available space.  “We envision a live-work-play environment where you live with research centers, shopping, hospitals, and you can bike or walk to your job site. You can go to the park and play, walk down to the river and have lunch,” said Tim Smith, an owner of Preston Development Company.  Surprisingly, the November 2011 Master Plan for RTP states they can “accommodate dramatically more development and employment over the next 50 years, in a sustainable and transformative way”.

The project lies within the Jordan Lake watershed, a polluted reservoir that supplies water to Cary, Apex, Morrisville, RTP South and northern Chatham County. Triangle cities, including Durham, can also draw from the watershed in emergencies.  It also spans several Significant Natural Heritage Areas, most notably the huge, untouched Pittsboro Wilderness.

From the “Indy”: Several environmental groups would like to see it remain that way. “The whole project is on a sensitive area for water quality and wildlife,” said Chad Jemison, executive director of the Triangle Land Conservancy. The group conducted an independent study in 2008 and recommended key conservation areas in Chatham Park remain untouched.

Town commissioners are reviewing Chatham Park for rezoning as a planned development district (PDD). The zoning designation relaxes regulations to give developers greater freedom for large projects. In return, developers are supposed to promote “quality urban design and environmentally sensitive development by allowing development to take advantage of special site characteristics, locations and land uses”.

In December, 2013, the Town Board of Commissioners sensibly voted to defer PDD rezoning approval pending independent consultant review of the Chatham Park proposals and PDD ordnance.  A team from The Laurence Group, based in Davidson, NC (headquartered in St. Louis) was selected in January, 2014 to conduct this study and report back to the town in February, 2014