The chicken trucks no longer roll down U.S. 15-501 between Pittsboro and Durham. They haven’t now for more than 15 years, but for decades they lumbered down that two-lane highway, feathers flying, frustrating the growing number of commuters and retirees making their way from northern Chatham to points east. That was when raising pullets and egg-layers along with the occasional dairy and beef herd was the economic backbone of the 707 square miles that natives and newcomers alike often refer to as “God’s Country.”
Chatham has long been a bucolic haven on the edge of the Research Triangle. There was a sense of relief when you crossed the border that you had escaped into the country, and though it wasn’t well known for progressive government, the combination of longtime farmers and back-to-the-land types kept at least some of the pressures to grow at bay.
Many had warned (and some had hoped) that Chatham would one day boom and boom big. It’s no secret that the 2002 commissioners’ race lit the fuse. Developer money poured in. Pro-growth candidates hammered on property rights themes and with the country in a recession the case was made that development, no matter how big or ill-conceived, meant jobs. Oversight of those arguments and the election in general–including future commissioner Bunkey Morgan’s blatant twisting of residency rules–was almost non-existent in the daily papers. It’s hard to say which was more frustrating–the lack of interest by the local dailies or the dirty tricks and nasty tone of the campaign. In case you weren’t paying attention then, we’ve included a handy map of the 4,685 new homes and more than three-quarters of a million square feet of commercial space (!) the new county commission is fixin’ to approve. The county is reaping what it has sown. Feel free to be outraged by it.
There will be jobs, of course, as the new crop of housing and commercial centers is brought to harvest. But the current stewards of Chatham County can’t seem to get it together to at least start the job boom by creating a couple of more positions in the county planning department to give the projects a careful going over. The commissioners, in their hurry to pave and landscape the countryside, have turned a blind eye to the lessons of their neighbors. There is still the false hope that somehow the growth will pay for itself–that adding thousands of commuters to the roads and doubling the size of the school system will be balanced out by the sales taxes from more shops and grocery stores and property taxes from McMansions.
The boom, commissioners and their supporters in the real estate and development community say, will be worth it even if the experience of other communities hints otherwise.
Someday old timers stuck in commuter traffic jams will remember fondly that as slow as they were, at least the chicken trucks moved. Someday it will be someone’s job to clean up the mess when privately owned, on-site sewer systems fail. Someday it will be someone’s job to help reclaim streams buried under mountains of silt and runoff. Someday the taxpayers will grumble over bulging schools, skyrocketing property taxes and a county too cash-strapped to react.
Someday those pullets will come home to roost.