If a colossal development is approved, Pittsboro, population 4,000, known for its quaint streets and pastoral byways, could have as many people as Rocky Mount within the next 35 years.

Spanning 7,000 acres, Chatham Park starts north near Bynum, then stretches south along the Haw River to East Pittsboro and continues all the way to Moncure. If fully built, the mixed-use development will increase Pittsboro’s population to more than 60,000 people over the next 30 to 40 years. With 22,000 homes and more than 13 million square feet of research and development space, it would be the largest development in Chatham County history.

“I am not opposed to Chatham Park and I am not opposed to growth. However, I want to know who will control the growth,” said Pittsboro resident Miriam Pollard. She was among 30 people who signed up to speak before Town Board of Commissioners at Monday’s packed public hearing about rezoning land for the development.

Commissioners have not voted on the proposal.

Pollard echoes the sentiment of many Pittsboro residents who are concerned that developers are controlling the agenda while Pittsboro rubber-stamps the plans. “When I’m 100, I want to see that Pittsboro has retained its character and charm,” she said.

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,” according to town documents.

While the project has been in the planning stages for some time, it picked up momentum this year. In February, Pittsboro added nearly 2,000 acres to its extraterritorial jurisdiction (ETJ) to bring all Chatham Park land under town rules. In April, the town adopted the new regulations establishing PDD zoning; Chatham Park is the first to apply. Developers submitted a master plan in May, outlining some of the plans for utilities, transportation, parks and schools. (See pittsboronc.gov for the master plan’s 36 pages of dense text and additional maps.)

Preston Development Company, a Cary-based firm, owns Chatham Park Investors LLC. Since 2006, it has been buying land in Chatham County with the financial backing of Jim Goodnight and John Sall of SAS Institute. Chatham Park Investors has been meeting with Pittsboro’s planning board and commissioners for years to discuss the project, said Philip Culpepper, consulting planner for Chatham Park Investors.

“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.

As of the 2010 census, Pittsboro consisted of a mere 1,480 households, with one town planner and one engineer. Residents question whether their small-town government is up to the task of managing such a project.

“I think we are better suited than any region in terms of our citizens,” said Pittsboro Mayor Randy Voller, arguing that a development this large would be a challenge for any municipality to manage. “We have highly informed, educated and interested citizens who are willing to take part in the process, and I think ultimately that’s going to help us shape our future.”

“It’s incumbent upon us to shape this into something that is reflective of what we want,” he added. “We need to be in control of our own destiny.”

If the project is approved, first to break ground will be a 25,000-square-foot parcel across from Northwood High School for UNC medical clinics. The land is already zoned for this use and has existing sewer and water lines. The site plan could be presented to the town planning department within the next 30 days. Chatham Park is also partnering with Strata Solar, a local company, to bring a 20-megawatt solar farm to the development.

David Scott, president of Chatham Habitat for Humanity’s board of directors, told town commissioners the development should include affordable housing, with 15 percent of all homes in Chatham Park designated for this use. “We strongly support the mixed-use aspect of Chatham Park; however, without affordable housing in the mix, it will only be affluent newcomers who benefit,” he said.

Timothy Keim, Pittsboro resident and representative from the nonprofit group Friends of the Rocky River, said Chatham Park developers should fund a study soliciting input from residents within five miles of the proposed project. “Is this what Chatham residents want?” he asked. “Is this development going to pay for itself or it is going to be on the people of Chatham County and Pittsboro?”

Longtime town resident Kate Ladd lives off East Thompson Street. She examined a map of Chatham Park and was surprised to discover that it will be a mere 18 feet from the back corner of her house. “I want to see them be good neighbors,” she said, handing a picture of her back yard to Mayor Voller. Right now, her yard is just trees.

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.

The next step for Chatham Park is negotiate a development agreement with the town, legally establishing who is responsible for aspects such as water and sewer. Developers, elected officials and community members agree on one thing: How the town negotiates with Chatham Park will change the course of Pittsboro.

“I fear the future of Pittsboro will be wholly shaped by Preston Development,” said Kenneth Jackson, a Pittsboro resident who spoke at the meeting. “Pittsboro does not belong to themit belongs to us. This is the future of our town.”

This article appeared in print with the headline “Pittsboro, meet sprawl.”