Summary of April 14 Pittsboro Board of Commissioners Meeting
Next Steps: Revised Master Plan expected April 28, Town Planning Board Meeting May 5, and Public Hearing on May 20.
Due in part of confusion, ignorance, miscommunication, purposeful fallacious arguments (e.g. straw man, with the straw man being storm water control as the only reason for conservation areas), the Mayor and the majority on April 12 appeared to have completely caved on the 30% conservation areas set aside and are going along with developers’ proposal to have open space set aside in a piecemeal basis in small area plans.
The amount “open space” (e.g. as opposed to “conservation areas” proposed by the consultants and actively promoted by Commissioner Bett Foley) would be contingent on the amount of development build out (e.g. as a percentage of a total commercial and residential build out.) In contrast, the Lawrence Group consultants proposed setting aside a minimum of 30% in conservation areas at the start of the development process that would approved as part of the final master plan(e.g. developer have two year to obtain approval). This 30% would remain in conservation regardless of the stage or degree of build out. Thus, if only 75% of the development was eventually completed, this 30% of the total land that is part of Chatham Park would remain as conservation areas. Also, this would be in addition to 10% to be set aside for parks, both active and passive, and would prevent the developers’ from combining both into their definition of “open space.”
Bett gamely tried to argue for keeping the 30%, identified in advance, but Fiocco and Culpepper argued against this, and the consultant declined to get into the fray, essentially saying there are two different alternative approaches. Also, no one challenged Culpepper when he argued that this was just about storm water controls. Fiocco followed with his usual argument about the best time to do this was at the small area plan stage when everything would be set out in detail, including open space and recreation areas, and that the board could object if the developers did not provide sufficient amounts or locate them in the right places.
Mayor Bill Terry, who has been a strong supporter of the consultant’s recommendations up until this meeting did not appear to understand that significance of the debate between the view of the developers and the consultants on this issue. He stated it appeared to be just a matter of “semantics” and he was now more comfortable with what the developers were doing. Hopefully, once he hears from citizens, he will understand that the 30% conservation recommendation of the consultants is critically important to Pittsboro citizens and he will become as uncomfortable as your are with the developers’ stonewalling on this issue.
It is time we knocked down the straw man argument that conservation areas are only designed for storm water protection.
Commissioner Wilson’s best argument was that if we followed the county’s environmental rules around buffers and storm water protections, about 60% of the land would need to be left undisturbed. But this argument itself may have added fuel to the straw man diversion the conservation area debate is only about storm water protection. This limited frame allows the developers to argue their design and technology can do the same things a setting aside a large conservation area prior to development. We know techno fixes cannot compete with nature for environmental protection and resilience, but local elected officials often fall for this false developer promise.
It is clear that nobody on this board has so far been either able or willing to make the affirmative evidentiary case that there are a host of other important reasons for setting aside large conservation than storm water protection, including species protection, resilience, air quality, economic enhancement and attraction of type of creative class workers this development is alleged to be geared toward, outdoor recreation, increased property values, climate change mitigation, educational resources and a large of psychological benefits. Commissioner Foley has, however, continually made the important point that if the town wants to control storm water, watershed protection, and these other important benefits of conservation, then the conservation areas must designated and set aside at the start of the development process – before approval of a final master plan. It is a scientific fact that planning can only address cumulative environmental impacts of a development as part of a comprehensive plan for the development, not piece meal in small area site plans.
Need for traffic impact assessment before master plan approval ignored
Another issue left completely off the table has a similar theme – leaving traffic impact analysis to the small area plans and limiting the developer’s traffic planning responsibility for the various damaging externalities caused by massive automobile traffic to their own property borders. Structurally and conceptually, traffic and conservation solutions are being kicked down the development road to small area plans, which both essentially negates this as a master planned community and avoids dealing with “cumulative impacts.”
1,800 extra residential units can be shed to increase protections of Haw River corridor
They board also failed to adequately address the issues around land use areas 1.1 and 1.3 adjacent to the Haw River northeast Pittsboro with a confused discussion of density and clustering. Clustering houses in a sensitive environmental area is better than sprawling out the same number of houses, but clustering alone doesn’t solve a number of environmental challenges, such as non-point source water and air pollution from cars and impervious surface needed for cars, parking, walkways, highly manicured lawns, etc. The developers can get the similar residential densities by keeping any development at least a half-mile (e.g. not 1,000 feet as Commissioner Fiocco proposed, but at 2,000 feet set out in the land use plan) from the Haw and clustering more walkable, mixed use areas closer toward the proposed urban center.
We would point out that the standard developer argument that you must trade the number of units for protecting watershed as proposed in both 30% conservation area set aside and not putting density along the Haw River. However, that does not apply here. The master plan call for a maximum of 22,000 residences but their land use plan has allocated space for approximately 28,000 residences (e.g. see Land Use Summary Table). That means there are 6,000 extra residence that the developers have located in Chatham Park than they will be allowed to developer. Keeping land uses out of areas 1.1 and 1.3 and maintaining as conservation areas will only eliminate about 1,800 residents, leaving still a large margin to achieving 22,000 total residences. And this would greatly improve the economic attraction of the adjacent clustered housing areas.
Developer should be required to “construct” the parks
There was some discussion but seemingly no resolution concerning the Lawrence Groups recommendation that the developer be required to “construct” the recreation areas. That confusion arose because the town manager did not appear to understand that his chart mistakenly put the “dedication” of park sites and “construction” of part facilities recommendations into the same time completion box that was part of the spreadsheet provided to board to help in making decisions concerning the recommendations. Commissioner Fiocco took advantage of this confusion to push to have the construction requirement for parks. Clearly, the developers should be required to construct the parks before dedicating to the town to operate and maintain.
New vision language lets the cat out of the bag – downtown doomed
Finally, Commissioner Fiocco appeared somewhat panicked by the language in the consultants proposed vision statement that honestly laid out the intentions of the Chatham Park Investors with the sentence: “The core of Chatham Park will form a new-city center for the Pittsboro community…”. Clearly, Fiocco recognized that this language made a lie of the Chatham Park Investors’ promise that development would preserve and enhance downtown Pittsboro, as well as our small town character. That lie should have been made clear to downtown merchants and property owners when the Lawrence Group exposed that north-south only road system that would “cut the heart out of Pittsboro.”
Possibly this proposed new vision language also worried Fiocco because he had previously lobbied against the interest of downtown merchants when he got the traffic language changed to eliminate the developers’ responsibility for any parts of the road network required by the traffic from the development that would be outside of their property. That suggestion not only does not make sense, it puts traffic burden caused by the development on residents in the rests of town. If you pollute outside your property, as traffic clearly does, you are responsible for mitigating those negative externalities by planning adequate road connections or providing alternative transportation (transit, walking, biking). It is unconscionable that the town board would allow the developers to obtain the economic benefit from this road network but not be requirement them to be responsible for traffic problems they cause property owners outside their development.
The town should set up a task force that would address the impact of this development on downtown and on other town businesses, as well as require the developer to pay for a socio-economic impact study prior to the master plan approval, and require them to present a proposed mitigation plan, with input from this task force. For example, if the core of Chatham Park is not going to replace downtown as the “the new city-center,” then we need to bargain to put into the development agreement provisions to prevent this, such as requiring the developer to fund a downtown performing arts and culture center, set aside a certain percentage of commercial property sales for a downtown revitalization fund, etc.
Time for board to accept that developer’s only interests is their pocketbooks
It is time we make clear that the developer have their own financial interests to pursue and that their first priority is not to benefit the town or its citizens. This does not mean the developers are doing anything other than what most developers or businesses do when they seek government approval or assistance. But the job of the town officials is to understand whose interests the developers are promoting and to be highly skeptical of their assertions or justifications.
Moreover, the town board has already been presented many examples over the last nine where the developers’ promises or assertions were clearly wrong or misleading. If Chatham Park Investors were looking out for the best interests of the town and really knew what they were doing, why did it take the review by an outside consulting firm to get them to be forced to make dramatic improvements in their master plan?
What about their repeated claim that they were in a hurry to get approval of the master plan because they had all these big job creators waiting in the wings to get started? Yet whose actions, other than the developers and Commissioner Fiocco’s in setting up his secret committee process, have been the real cause of the delays? What happened to the promised hospital jobs, which was a big argument the EDC used to support approval back on November 25? Well, the promised 95-bed ventilator hospital went to Fearrington and we are left with moving an existing doctor to a new office building and starting a 10-bed hospice center. And the acute hospital Jay Farrell was promised is 15-20 years away, according to the UNC hospital representative.
Recall the developer’s proposed north-south road system completely cut off the development from downtown Pittsboro. Don’t forget that eliminating a major conservation area would take away a major draw for the type of “creative class” workers that their alleged “Clean Tech cluster” require.
We were pleased here the Lawrence Groups consultant talk about the need to “raise the bar” on the quality of the development proposal. Unfortunately, all we hear from the developer and their lobbyist in the board, Commissioner Fiocco, is the need to lower the bar. We cannot help our reaction that so far the developers have behavior more like snake oil salesmen than a company seriously seeking support for a high quality, innovative 21st century sustainability community.
We have reached the point where our message to the town board need to be clear. The town board has a critical test of democratic governance before them as they decide on this development proposal. Will they live up to their duties as elected officials and put the interests of the town and its residents before the interests of the developers? Will they live up to their clear campaign promises to listen to the citizen?
We Need Your Help!
Given the threats to the town water and air quality, downtown business survival, future traffic nightmare, loss of important natural areas, we are seeking your financial support to start a fund that we can use to contract for environmental, planning and legal expertise to assist citizens to make their case before the board and possibly before other government review bodies. You can make a tax-deductible donation to Pittsboro Matters through the Haw River Assembly. Please follow the link,
http://hawriver.org/join-hra/, and scroll to the BOTTOM of the page to find the special donation area for Pittsboro Matters. Thank you for supporting Pittsboro Matters!