PITTSBORO — Tim Smith had a warning and a promise for the 100-plus people crammed into the room.
The developer’s team had talked for more than two hours about the wooded trails, village centers and “clean tech” companies envisioned for Chatham Park, a proposal that would multiply tiny Pittsboro’s population 20 times. Now came the closer, from one of the men who shaped Cary.
“Look at this map up there. The big gorilla that’s going to attack us over the next 50 years is growth,” Smith said, motioning to a projection of the Triangle’s sprawl. Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill and Cary almost bled together. In the corner was Pittsboro, still virgin land on the development map.
“You can’t stop people from coming. It needs to be well-planned, well-established,” the co-owner of Preston Development Co. continued, speaking quickly. “You want to do it in 50-acre tracts, or you want to do it in 7,000-acre tracts?”
Many townspeople see Chatham Park and its plans for 60,000 residents as a near inevitability. Chatham Park Investors already owns thousands of acres along the eastern edge of town, and Pittsboro brought the land into its planning jurisdiction last year.
The town’s elected officials now are considering a “planned development district,” essentially a broad rezoning that would exempt the developers from the town’s requirements for minimum lot size, lot frontage and set backs, and its maximum building height.
Moreover, the plan outlines where Chatham Park would place its 22,000 residential units, a downtown-style village, five smaller commercial areas, and millions of square feet of office and lab space.
With that kind of plan approved, “you can appeal to employers,” said Tom D’Alesandro, a member of the development team. “You can go to companies and weave together a better integration of residential, of nature, and employment. The vision does have power.”
First, though, Preston needs Pittsboro to buy in.
Residents worry that the rezoning, if approved, would hand planning authority for a huge swath of town to a group of outsiders. On the environmental front, the Haw River Assembly says the proposal puts far too much development near the shores of the Haw River and Jordan Lake.
And then there’s the question of whether Pittsboro could keep its character through decades of construction.
To allay fears, Preston’s consultants listed their work on previous planned communities, all the way back to the modern original, Reston, Va.
In Chatham County, Preston argues that large-scale private planning would allow “environmental sustainability,” “economic sustainability” and “social sustainability,” through a mix of natural areas, high-tech industries and housing for everyone from “an entry-level employee to the CEO.” And Preston would do it all, the team said, while preserving old Pittsboro and its spirit.
“There’s an intimacy in Pittsboro, and the scale of it,” D’Alesandro said in a presentation that drew polite applause and shouted questions. “We’ll be looking at references – what are the buildings, what are the cultural institutions, what are the reference points that we should acknowledge as we do our planning?”
The applicants also said that Pittsboro’s government would retain power over the development. Before construction, each chunk of Chatham Park would go before the town’s elected board for a “site plan” or “subdivision plan” review, during which many design specifics would be finalized.
Pittsboro’s elected board seemed guardedly open to the project Monday night. They asked whether the town’s water plant could keep up with the new demand, and how Preston would provide affordable housing.
Mayor Randy Voller, who is not running for re-election this year, wanted to know how Chatham Park would benefit Pittsboro’s current residents – and he was enticed by the possibilities.
“We have always been perceived as this large, undiscovered country for someone to exploit. People from Raleigh and Durham and Chapel Hill never really considered that we would be the driver in the conversation, and you’re proposing that we may.”
Still, skepticism and worry run high as the big decision approaches. Bill Terry, former town manager and current mayoral candidate, wants to see much more detail on the costs to the town to provide water and other services for the project. He thinks the town already is overburdened with the costs of aging infrastructure.
“Banking on future revenues that might be generated from a larger population … doesn’t feed the bulldog, with respect to how we address today’s issues,” said Terry, suggesting Chatham Park might work better as its own town. His opponent, Bill Crawford, says revenues from Chatham Park may solve some of the town’s problems, but he, too, stresses careful planning.
Bryan Gruesbeck, the current town manager, said the town already is working out the costs of expanded infrastructure. Moreover, he said, Pittsboro doesn’t intend to build out services until development is underway, ensuring revenues to pay the bill.
“You don’t want … to be left on the hook for infrastructure development that you can’t afford,” he said. He stressed too that the town’s elected board would maintain significant leverage over the design details of Chatham Park.
The project returns to the board for another work session at 7 a.m. Aug. 24. Preston hopes to win approval of its master plan in September, followed by a development agreement to hammer out further details of finances and procedures.
If the plan is approved, it’s unlikely to fail, according to its developer. Chatham Park’s primary financial backer is Jim Goodnight, the cofounder of SAS Institute.
“He’s the richest man in the state of North Carolina,” Smith said. “He won’t run out of money.”
The first project, a 25,000-square-foot medical office, could break ground within six months.
Kenney: 919-460-2608; Twitter: @KenneyOnCary