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Arguments about Chatham Park are the same as those about Fearrington in the 1970s

By Tom Glendinning
Posted Thursday, November 14, 2013

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Pittsboro, NC - The various comments on Chatham Park, its development and planning are inspiring. A wide range of perspectives offer better understanding of the process. Al Cooke described a very broad picture and time line in his Chatlist post today. I am grateful for his comments.

There are, obviously, people who do not want it in Pittsboro or in Chatham. As Al pointed out, he is surprised that we are not already developed in a fashion similar to Cary and Apex. I recall the debates about Fearrington when it was started in the late 1970's. I find it humorous that the same arguments were used then as today. It is too large. There will be too many people. They aren’t like us. The traffic will be a problem not solved by our roads and highways.

There are several areas upon which to expand and some to introduce. These are the precedents for such development, when Chatham Park Investors began acquiring land, regulation, planning design and permitting, profit/survival of business and jobs.

The issue of precedents

If there were any doubts about the benefits, I believe that they are answered by now. Citizens who live in Fearrington serve on our county boards, contribute to the community, teach as volunteers as far away as Silk Hope, add to our tax base, as well as give their valuable time and experience in many ways. Further, the barn hosts community events. We have a four star restaurant, a diamond rated bed and breakfast, and several vendors known outside the county, such as McIntyre’s Books which hosts readings and book introductions. Fearrington also has a rest home facility and a Duke health center. The total package is a net benefit for Chatham. The vision of the founders and partners was of such quality that it set many precedents for development. And it was the first planned unit development for us, guided by the first planning director, Michael Surface.

There are several points of comparison from Fearrington and Chatham Park. I can not cover all of them. Essentially, the development will house new inhabitants in one, well planned, well built, controlled environment. The company is well funded and can execute its plans. Services and infrastructure will be provided easily, efficiently and within regulations. Chatham Park will be a benefit to the county and to the town. Nothing will happen overnight. Finally, some of us will be dead before it is completed.

Another point to counter the argument of size is that the same number of people will buy and build on five to ten acre lots throughout the county without such a development. In so doing, they will occupy more land, impact more streams, take up more highway space everywhere, drill wells which will lower the water table, install more septic fields which will eventually fail and pollute, and take up the view so valued by the “conservationists of rural character.” This plan would furnish no jobs beyond the building crews. If the 60,000 people planned built individual homes on seven acre lots, the space required would be 154,000 acres, not the 7000 acres in the Park. The choice is to allow a well planned community or say goodbye to the rural atmosphere some idealists wish to protect by not allowing it. Contradictions are such wonderful arguments.

The issue of ownership history

The base parcels for the Park were assembled by private investors over many years. Other parcels have been added as opportunities were afforded. The Chatham Park group bought the first parcels in 2006 and the last in 2013, to date. The previous owners of the base parcels are the few who buy and hold land for future development. This group is special in that its members can perform this function for society, can afford that type of investment and have a vision of adding value to the community. One large parcel along US 15-501 was available because of the recession. One south of town belonged to Townsend and Omtron, both of which went out of business.

Another issue of ownership is legal boundary. The Park is within the town limits or extraterritorial jurisdiction. Should the town become too uncooperative or obstruct the plans, the owners may decide to incorporate a new town through legislative action. That option has not been brought forth, but it is a reality. Western Wake Partners had the same option when discussing the right-of-way with the county in 2011. I do like the image of Diogenes seeking truth with a lantern while holding a bludgeon as much as I like Teddy Roosevelt’s maxim.

The issue of regulation

In the world of regulations, most are managed by state and federal agencies or rules. Environmental health, the NC DOT, sedimentation and erosion control, the watershed ordinance, the Jordan Lake rules, stormwater management, Water Quality Section of DENR, building inspections, and the fire marshal. Though Chatham has departments of the same name, the rules are codified at the state or the federal level. Within the county, and hopefully the town, planning and zoning regulations provide sufficient basic protection of adjoining property owners and the general public to afford development along the guidelines of the Park group. Basically, the town and county have little to say about the basic plans and execution other than local permitting.

Should there be those who feel that rules ought to be stricter, they need to address the legislature and our Congressional delegation to have them changed. That is an arduous process, I can attest. The conflict between larger more powerful government and one’s personal vision of the world must be resolved individually. Granting regulatory powers to state and federal government also means that the rules, laws and regulations can not be changed with the snap of the fingers. Often the frustration of the people at odds with the rules becomes focused on the developer offering major changes in the community. This developer is planning by existing rules. If you want the rules, you’ve also got bigger government which changes slowly.

The issues of planning, design and permitting

The Chatham County planning board manual was written over time, but altered in major ways in 2001, 2008 and 2010. The values written into the overall plan fostered green businesses, development greenways, parks, clean water, farms and farming operations, affordable housing and many values from new inhabitants from urban settings wanting the rural “country” environment to stay the same as their vision.

Chatham Park Investors have planned their community with those values. Buildings will be designed according to LEED standards, community design will be done with environmentally sound methods, infrastructure will be installed with green standards, and open land will be preserved in greenways and parks. Water quality will be protected by state and federal standards. Basic layout will be designed using the current geophysical and hydrological characteristics of the land. A more fitting applicant could not be imagined.

The town does not currently have sufficient departments or staff to handle planning, permitting and inspection. However, the county does, should the town decide to avail itself of those resources. We will see what course Pittsboro takes, to build a permitting and regulating empire or to cooperate with the county to provide those services.

The issues of profit and survival

Chatham Park Investors may be the most well funded group in development. Newland (Briars Chapel) and Chatham Partners (Laurel Ridge, the Glens, the Bluffs, and Shively/Banner) are also secure financially. These developers survived the recession and will deliver high quality communities.

But funding is not the only consideration for quality and survival. Marketing plans and execution are the most critical aspect. R.B. Fitch’s plan involved ads in the New Yorker Magazine and targeted suburban retirees in New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts and New Jersey. The market niche and pricing strategy proved very successful. Sales were abundant and well timed in the national economic cycles.

The most important part of that equation is meeting market expectations with the proper product at the right price. That part is not prescribed in planning, zoning or any regulations, laws or rules. This survival/success rule supercedes what a government can do in a free market economy. It is the testing ground and proof for any product. And it can not be regulated, though rules and taxes can effect the pricing and the product. For example, Chatham County’s up front impact and permitting fees can cost between $7,000 and $15,000 before anything is built. The propriety of those fees is another issue. However, the basic rule of financial success triumphs in the principle of marketing.

The idea that profit is a bad thing or that corporations do harm because they are greedy in making profits is akin to believing that there is a money tree or a fountain of youth. Without these profits, there would be no economy. No taxes would be paid. No government would survive. No wages would be paid. No business could expand. Citizens would live in a survival/poverty mode.

Chatham County and North Carolina have been blessed in the recent downturn. Regardless that our economy was based on growth, and that growth was punished as a result of the housing and financial crash, our area has survived better than other parts of the country. The benefits that will accrue via Chatham Park and the Siler City Megasite will not be limited to tax base growth, but also to the increase of permanent high quality jobs. The last group commissioners stated that we lost sales tax to retail outlets outside the county. The large portion of citizens who commute out of county for work is the reason. Chatham Park will generate local sales and create jobs at a level not imagined before. Both of these benefits will return revenues not designed by any other initiatives. In order for Chatham County to survive and profit, we need those jobs and that tax revenue to build our future.

This article addressed the issues of precedents, ownership, planning, profit and jobs. I desire that it add some information for the discussion of Chatham Park and our future in Chatham County. To see the vision of the developers, go to the Vimeo presentation published last year;

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Arguments about Chatham Park are the same as those about Fearrington in the 1970s