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Is Chatham going to be its own county?

By Doug Nicholas
Posted Tuesday, May 23, 2006

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Where is Chatham County going?

Chatham County, NC - I hope we can all appreciate Mr. Williams' lifetime of experience.

He obviously grew up as a good soldier of the Cold War. "Better dead than Red," right?, where red meant anything to the left of Ike. It's difficult to adapt to a changing world, especially when you have so much of your identity tied up in the way things used to be.

Despite the angle of his question, Mr. Williams' question is an interesting one.

One answer is -- We don't know.

Who will the people be who buy the $250,000+ homes in Briar Chapel, Chapel Ridge and the other mega-developments approved by our current commissioners? There will be enough of them to tilt the political balance in the county.

If North Raleigh and Cary are any indicator, they could well be right-leaning folks with so-called conservative, "family" values and so-called conservative economic values; they probably will come to those developments for the suburban experience, the amount of house/lot they can get for the money (comparatively), and low taxes. They'll come to work at jobs at UNC and Duke and in RTP. Their eyes will be turned toward Chapel Hill and Cary and Raleigh, not Pittsboro and Siler City. They'll raise their little soccer players, join their PTAs and beyond that might not ever learn much about where they live. I speak from some experience on this point -- that's how my family and many others lived in the suburban development thrown up on former farmland where I was raised.

But that's a ways off. In the next four years the commissioners backed by the Coalition will have the edge. What does that mean? I don't think that means they will vote on issues in some lock-step with J. Starkweather. What I do think it means is that for the first time in four years we'll have commissioners who actually represent Chatham residents rather than developers. That we'll have commissioners who actually listen to public input. That we'll have commissioners who might put the long-term future of the county ahead of a perceived short-term gain.

"Is Chatham going to be its own county?" I think it will, much more so that under the outgoing regime, which was so eager to sell Chatham out.

I'm a conservationist by profession. One of the things I do in my job is talk to citizen groups and local leaders about local conservation policies. What I emphasize is that communities have to plan for conservation as part of planning for the ways they will grow. Without a plan, without a vision for what a community wants to look like in the future, the developers will do what they want (i.e. take short term profit and leave a mess behind - that's become the new American way).

Will these new commissioners meet my expectations for creating a vision of Chatham County that protects our rivers and streams and drinking water and farmland and important natural areas while attracting businesses and some new residents? I don't know. But I do know that they have a much better chance of doing it than the outgoing group.

One final note... When we get into discussions of the future of our county we always talk about attracting business. Important, absolutely. Most studies show that industry contributes more than two dollars in taxes for every dollar in services it requires.

That's a good thing for the county. But let's not lose sight of one industry that is already here -- agriculture. Those same studies show that agriculture also pays more in taxes than it requires in services, not as much as factory-type industry, but better than residential development (which most studies show costing more in services than contributing in taxes). So let's think first about how to keep our farmers farming, how to encourage new farming initiatives, and how to help our farmers diversify their income streams.

I hope even Mr. Williams can be on board this "red" idea.

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