In the Triangle’s wild western frontier, the men are still men, the married women are still introduced as “the former Miss So-and-So,” and elected leaders open public meetings praising Jesus.

Welcome to Chatham County, one of the last undeveloped (for now) corners of the Triangle, home of the Haw River, family farms, adorable antique stores in the county seat and artists’ enclaves nestled in the woods. Listening to locals compare pickle recipes or counting gun racks on pickups, it’s easy to forget that it’s 2006 and suburbia is just a short drive north or east to Orange, Wake or Durham.

Lately though, more and more northeastern Chatham residents don’t have to drive anywhere to find themselves in North-Raleigh-like surroundings. Four years ago, an election polluted by development-industry funding opened the county’s floodgates for enormous subdivisions, including 10,000 new homes already approved and lots more lots on the drawing boards. The unchecked housing boom is quickly transforming northeastern Chatham into a more common–and modern–Triangle scene: neighborhood after neighborhood of cookie-cutter rooftops flanked by strip malls and plagued by commuter traffic, crowded classrooms and high property taxes.

Thanks to proximity to jobs, cheap land and attractive natural resources, it’s clear Chatham County is well on its way to a population explosion no matter who’s in charge of the local government. But this spring, the campaign for three county commissioners’ seats is a battle over who gets to direct and shape that growth–the people who live there or the people who profit from the building boom, such as developers, large landowners, real estate agents and homebuilders.

Northeastern Chatham–where more than 40 percent of the county’s 58,000 residents live–is poised to join the more urbanized portions of the Triangle in look and feel and chain-stores-per-capita rates. But the campaign leading up to this week’s Democratic primary has been a throw-down worthy of the Old West, complete with fightin’ words flung out loud at forums and in screamingly large type in local papers, modern-day robber barons backing favored candidates, and a host of last-minute changes to voting precincts and processes that one citizens’ PAC labeled “stealing the election the old-fashioned way.”

While it may look more like a story out of an old Western two-reeler or HBO’s current hit Deadwood, it’s an instructive lesson in the way modern politics works across North Carolina. Last campaign cycle, members of the sprawl lobby–that is, everyone with a direct financial interest in growth, from road pavers and homebuilders to mortgage bankers–increased their donations nearly five-fold from 10 years ago, according to campaign watchdog Democracy North Carolina. The two lead PACs of homebuilders and real estate professionals contributed $537,000 to candidates across the state, cementing the industry’s domination as the state’s leading special interest group, in terms of influence. With donor dollars and powerful lobbyists, they sway the decisions of voters and elected officials with just the same goals as in Chatham County–they just don’t do it in a showdown in the middle of a dusty country road.

“It’s time for a change: Chatham is suffering irreparable harm from increased development,” District 4 candidate Tom Vanderbeck told a crowd at a March forum. “It’s time for a change: You are my only special interest.”

Vanderbeck’s stump speech raised the hackles of incumbent Commissioner Tommy Emerson, who took the mike next and let fly in characteristic good ol’ boy indignation.

“I had a rather vanilla speech prepared for tonight, but this gentleman just changed it,” Emerson said, pointing at Vanderbeck. “I resent that he and others get up and imply that he’s got anything less than honest government . . . I’m tired of all these implications that if you don’t think like I do, then somebody bought you. Who are the cronies? What are the back room deals? I’m not aware of ’em. We don’t need this kind of fussing and quarreling.”

That’s not surprising coming from Emerson, who benefits from as little uproar as possible–he’s part of the status quo. For four years, a majority led by current Chairman Bunkey Morgan, with support from Emerson and outgoing commissioner Carl Outz, has maintained a “welcome, and thank you for sprawling” approach in northeastern Chatham while selling the residential boom as an economic boon that will benefit constituents all over the county–especially in the west, where residents don’t have to live with the negative side effects undirected development brings. Morgan and Emerson are seeking re-election in Districts 4 and 5, respectively; former county Democratic Party chairwoman Mary Nettles has joined the Morgan-Emerson slate in a bid for Outz’s District 3 seat.

Two of the three races will be decided in this week’s Democratic primary; the third will be contested in November. But the primary is particularly contentious because the outcome of just one race could swing the balance of the board, giving a majority to the citizen movement that put commissioners Patrick Barnes and Mike Cross in office in 2004 on a platform of controlled growth, sound planning, open government and public interests over private ones. Barnes (District 1) and Cross (District 2) rode a wave of grassroots backlash from the developer-influenced election that put Morgan’s majority in power in 2002.

Voters countywide vote for all five seats, but commissioners are supposed to live in the districts they represent. At the candidates’ forum on March 28, Morgan’s District 4 challenger took a jab at the residency controversy that’s dogged his opponent for four years.

“Nine years ago, my wife and I built our house at the corner of Chicken Bridge Road and Old Graham Road,” Vanderbeck told the mostly friendly crowd at northern Chatham’s Fearrington Village community. “It’s our only home, and we actually live there.”

To most of the people in the room, it was a good joke: Though Morgan uses a Siler City townhouse as his “official” residence in District 4, he maintains his home in Apex, in District 1, from whose address he originally ran unsuccessfully as a Republican in 2000 and where his wife still resides.

But four years after Morgan changed both his party affiliation and his address to unseat a growth-control incumbent–and pave the way for his backers like Raleigh real estate magnate Tommy Fonville and California’s mega-developer Newland Communities to replace Chatham’s pristine forests with enormous subdivisions, golf courses and strip malls–where the commissioners’ chairman sleeps at night is the least of Chatham County’s problems.

Faced with running on his record, Morgan has bragged of funding three new schools and economic development successes such as finally getting a county business park in Siler City off the ground after it sat vacant for years. (The new tenants so far, though, are all nonprofits, meaning no addition to the county’s tax base.)

“Our main priority now is to accommodate the growth we have,” Morgan told a packed courtroom at an April 4 forum, drawing guffaws when he suggested the commissioners should “put some teeth into the land use plan”–a plan his critics accuse him of completely ignoring in approving every development project that’s come before the board during his first term.

Morgan’s campaign mailings have alternated between warm, fuzzy profiles of the former Republican cuddling the donkey he calls his family’s “Democratic mascot” and strongly worded attack ads criticizing the Chatham Coalition, an umbrella PAC of citizens’ groups that organized in the wake of the 2002 election and supported Barnes and Cross in 2004.

“Their filthy campaign is full of half-truths and personal attacks that don’t deserve a response,” one Morgan mailer says. “It’s time to stop the bitter, negative politics of a small group of people who want to tell the majority of Chatham County how they should and can live their lives.”

Leaders of the coalition and the candidates they support, meanwhile, are talking about issues like protecting the environment, the need to “plan, plan and plan some more,” ideas about how to get developers to bear some of the burdens of growth, the value of citizen input and citizen experts in shaping Chatham’s future, and a code of ethics for county leaders.

The war of words between Morgan and the coalition is playing out in newspaper and radio ads, as well, with the coalition targeting the current administration’s tendency to be “yes men” for all development and raising questions about who should pay the costs of rampant, unplanned growth. In response to the coalition’s calling Morgan out on his record, third parties who have personal financial stakes in Morgan’s development-friendly leadership have jumped in to support his slate and condemn the citizens’ groups in colorful and hyperbolic language.

“ATTENTION CHATHAM COUNTY RESIDENTS!!!! . . . Do you want to give up control of your farmland rights?” asked a full-page April 13 ad placed by Bob Knight, whose family owns riverfront property and who has spoken out at public meetings against limiting building in watersheds. “Do you want to allow a small group to live a life of leisure at your expense?”

Real estate developers Holland and Rebecca Gaines took out three full-page ads calling the coalition “a small group of highly organized extremists” who “plan to seize the Democratic Party and exercise absolute control of county government.”

Unluckily for Morgan, however, Holland and Rebecca Gaines can’t cast votes to re-elect him in Chatham County’s Democratic primary for two reasons: They live in Wake County, and they are Republicans. The Gaineses have plenty of motivation to urge other folks to support the Morgan-Emerson-Nettles ticket, though: They are developing pricey gated communities in eastern Chatham that are subject to commissioner review.

In a commissioners’ meeting where he was negotiating for a delay in paying water tap fees last month, Holland Gaines said his family has owned land in Chatham County for two centuries and that he and his wife are just “trying to make a living and provide houses for people who like to live in Chatham County,” and they “will be contributing in a positive manner to the county.”

The ads they bought in the Chatham News and Record criticizing the Chatham Coalition were anything but positive, though:

“They intend to micro-govern Chatham County,” the Gaineses wrote. “Micro-government has another name. It is called socialism. They will determine if a business is welcome in Chatham County. They will tell you how you can use your land.”

In the most recent ad, the couple even played the God card, piggybacking on a recent complaint from the American Civil Liberties Union that asked Morgan, as chair, to stop invoking references to Jesus Christ in his prayers at commissioners’ meetings. The ACLU sent the same request to several other Triangle governments, citing a 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that deemed sectarian prayers at government meetings unconstitutional because they favor one religion over another.

“It’s hard to believe there are people determined to control every aspect of our lives,” the Gaineses wrote. “Chatham County residents knew it would happen sooner or later. Someone would get the word out that we will honor God in Chatham County.”

The active involvement of major landholders and others who profit from fewer regulations on development is a mirror image of the 2002 campaign, when Morgan was first elected.

That year, a group called Chatham NOW organized in support of Morgan’s ouster of then-chairman Gary Phillips, who had begun the county’s first real land-use planning efforts and also led commissioners’ unanimous rejection of Briar Chapel, a 2,500-home subdivision between Chapel Hill and Pittsboro that was proposed by Newland Communities, a national developer out of California.

Chatham NOW, Newland and the Triangle Community Coalition, an umbrella group of Wake County homebuilders and real estate firms softening the ground for future profits in Chatham County, organized an aggressive attack that included push-polling, paid consultants and other high-dollar campaign strategies that were new to Chatham’s down-home political scene.

With the help from the local and national sprawl lobby and large sums of his own money, Morgan narrowly won the 2002 Democratic primary by just 320 votes. Soon after the election, Morgan began collecting donations from backers with vested interests: the Gaines family; Fonville, the county’s fourth-largest landowner at the time, whose first development, a 700-home golf-course community called Chapel Ridge, won approval in Morgan’s first month in office; and asphalt plant owner Seth Wooten. Wooten gave Morgan the maximum donation of $4,000 long after the votes were tallied and Morgan was in office–but just shortly after Morgan provided the swing vote to approve the expansion of Wooten’s Chatham plant in Red Bud over the vociferous objections of its neighbors.

In February 2005, the new board of commissioners reconsidered and approved Briar Chapel, the 1,600-acre subdivision that’s now under construction and will house about 6,000 newcomers in homes averaging $320,000.

In August 2005, Big Builder magazine featured a three-page spread on its industry’s victory in the Briar Chapel battle. Titled “It Took a Village,” the piece credited Newland PR rep Diane Gaynor with organizing a “developer-orchestrated attempt to create a single voice” that influenced the 2002 election, resulting in “a pro-growth voting bloc.”

“With a little help–no, make that a lot of help–from the developer’s friends in the real estate and business communities, the once-comatose property was resurrected,” the article crows.

Also quoted as taking some credit was Chris Sinclair of the Triangle Community Coalition, the group that originally called itself the Wake County Real Estate and Building Coalition. Though he denied involvement or, in fact, any interest in Chatham’s politics as the time, Sinclair–who also runs his own consulting business helping developers overcome citizen objections to their projects–began appearing at government meetings and citizen workshops around Chatham just before the 2002 election. He occasionally weighed in with comments, including one memorable defense of how North Raleigh’s congested suburbia represented good planning that Chatham leaders would be wise to emulate.

In Morgan’s bid for re-election, the wealthy car wash magnate’s finances are again drawing attention. Five months before the primary, he loaned his campaign $50,000, almost twice the $27,000 he spent in total in 2002. While self-loans are perfectly legal, the process of funding his own expenses and then recouping them in post-election donations, as in 2002, hides his supporters from voters until after the polls close. Morgan also has spread his money around to support both Emerson and Nettles, who faces former planning board chairman and retired scientist George Lucier in her bid for the District 3 seat. In an interesting twist, the alliance between Morgan and Nettles this time around is a 180-degree turn from four years ago. Back then, Nettles was the chair of the county’s Democratic Party and told the Independent she was deeply troubled by Morgan’s candidacy, given his recent affiliation as a Republican. Morgan was so outraged by Nettles’ comments and follow-up e-mails among party members that he wrote a nasty letter accusing leaders of sabotaging his campaign.

Nettles, a first-time candidate who did not attend two of the first three forums, did not return phone calls.

In another controversial financial arrangement, Morgan late last year provided personal backing to help two planning board members, Clyde Harris and Martin Mason, secure bank loans of $4,500 and $12,000, respectively. Morgan says his support was purely altruistic and the men are “friends.” Mason, a long-time activist in county politics, was rumored at the time to be considering challenging Morgan in the District 4 Democratic primary. He used the money to expand his family day care center in Siler City and now sings Morgan’s praises publicly. Harris is running for the county school board in the November election.

Dueling ads and controversial donations aside, perhaps the most old-fashioned tactic the Morgan forces have been accused of this election is manipulating the electoral system itself. Over the last few months, the county board of elections made significant changes to precinct maps, polling places, election machinery and early voting procedures that Chatham Coalition leaders say favor the incumbents by making it more difficult and confusing to vote in the northeast, where growth pressures have stirred up citizen activism and Morgan and his allies are least popular.

“The board of elections has taken a series of behind-closed-doors actions that will disenfranchise groups that happen to also oppose the haphazard sprawl, higher property taxes and back-room deals promoted by county commission chair Bunkey Morgan,” says Chatham Coalition secretary John Hammond.

At issue are several decisions the elections board, comprised of two Democrats and one Republican, have made since January: combining six large precincts into three even larger ones of up to 4,500 voters each (when state standards call for 1,500 voters or fewer per polling place to avoid lines); eliminating a “one-stop” early voting site along commuter routes in the northeast, where residents are concentrated and many leave the county for work; buying two different kinds of voting machines and using the more confusing one for early voting; and changing polling places for several precincts.

In the latter decision, the elections board notified voters of their change in polling place by sending postcards that seven precinct chairs called “unclear and misleading,” including one case where the cards directed voters simply to a street address without identifying the polling place by name as a local school.

Members of the Chatham Coalition were not the only folks outraged by the changes. At a tense and crowded March meeting of the elections board, candidate Carl Thompson, who is African American, gave an eloquent speech about how the changes will negatively affect not only northeastern voters, but black voters who are now concentrated largely into just two precincts.

“Too many people have shed their blood and died for the right to vote in this country,” Thompson said. “These measures create the perception of being politically motivated to the advantage of the incumbents.”

It hasn’t escaped notice that two of the three board members, Audrey Poe and Ernest Dark, were appointed to the elections board by Nettles in her role as chair of the Democratic Party, prior to Nettles becoming a candidate for commissioner on a slate with Morgan and Emerson. Morgan, as commissioners’ chair, has pushed through the purchase of the new voting machines, including calling a third vote on the matter a couple of weeks ago, after a lawsuit challenging the first two votes to approve the new machines was filed.

Leaders of the county’s Democratic Party joined the protesters, and one long-time precinct chair gave an emotional account of events, accusing the board of hiding its decisions behind closed doors and subverting democracy.

“I asked you in January if you were considering eliminating this precinct,” said Nick Meyer, a chief judge at Merritt’s Chapel who’s been involved in Chatham elections for 25 years. “Then, on March 13, the board of elections Web site announced the changes were made. I was not informed. The Republican judge was not informed. There’s a lot of levels of dishonesty before you get to doing something illegal.”

Democrats Poe and Dark and Republican Craig Bray have maintained that they were simply following new federal and state laws in changing the voting machines, that combining precincts was a result of several factors, including being unable to secure the usual polling places and the northeastern one-stop site this year.

“We’ve been looking at these changes for four or five years,” Poe, the chairwoman, told the angry crowd.

After a slew of complaints from citizens, who appealed to state officials and legislative and congressional representatives to intervene, the State Board of Elections finally forced Chatham to reinstate the northeastern one-stop voting site.

Heightening suspicious voters’ fears about the election shenanigans, more than 60 voters received the wrong ballots in the first week of early voting–an error county officials blamed on the vendors of the new machines.

The lawsuit over the changes, filed by two voters in early April and accusing the board of elections of breaking open meetings and public records laws, is pending.

The citizen uprising over the changes to voting processes is, in some ways, emblematic of yet another side effect of Chatham’s growth–the organization and growing activism of a grassroots democracy. Over the last four years, groups like Chatham United, founded by now-commissioner Patrick Barnes to oppose Cary annexation over the county line, and the Southeast Chatham Advisory Council, which organized around industrial pollution in that corner of the county, have pooled their concerns and resources to make the most of their voices. Everyday citizens are now monitoring public meetings and holding elected leaders accountable, critiquing and commenting on development proposals that will affect their quality of life and the environment and suggesting improvements to the planning process. They are also educating fellow Chathamites with workshops like the “citizens’ college” run by the Chatham Citizens for Effective Communities to explain political processes, and a recent forum exploring “green” energy.

Citizen watchdogs have also reported environmental damage caused by construction, resulting in one case in regulatory fines of nearly $14,000 for Tommy Fonville’s Chapel Ridge development.

On the campaign trail, Vanderbeck, Lucier and Thompson have reflected those same priorities, talking about goals like preserving Chatham’s rural character and listening to citizen input, exploring measures to relieve current residents of some of the costs of growth, such as a land-transfer tax, and asking developers to pony up concessions like building new schools and providing other community amenities. Whether the voters agree with that approach will be clear on May 2.

“This election will be one of the most hotly contested in this county’s history,” Thompson said at the elections board meeting in late March. “The winners will make decisions that will affect our quality of life for many years to come.”

Looking back, looking ahead
More information on Chatham’s past and the folks who want some say in its future
For more on Chatham County’s politics, see these stories in the Indy’s online archive:

“Is there a price on Gary Phillips’ head?” March 6, 2002

“How Bunkey won” Oct. 2, 2002

“Paradise tossed: How developers bought Chatham County” Jan. 7, 2004

“Chathamites rally to be heard” Jan. 28, 2004

“Grassroots victory in Chatham” Nov. 3, 2004

“Sprawl envelops northeast Chatham” Feb. 23, 2005

“Morgan backs planning board members’ loans” Feb. 1, 2006

For more information on citizen groups in Chatham, see:

The Chatham Coalition

Chatham Citizens for Effective Communities

Pittsboro Together

For a map of pending developments, see:

Finally, for a look at how citizens in Montgomery County, Md., are taking their county back from development interests, see: