This story first published online at NC Policy Watch.
Mark Pavao was working in his home that is tucked inside a woods and perched above a creek when he heard chainsaws.
Contractors hired by the N.C. Department of Transportation had asked him if they could walk through part of his property in rural Pittsboro. He agreed to a stroll. He did not agree to what happened next.
“They cut 41 trees,” Pavao said, as we ambled over thick trunks and stumps of mature oaks and ashes, maples and pines. “They had no legal standing to cut them.”
We approached a thin, red metal post, a survey marker. The contractors had felled the trees without permission last April to survey the route of a proposed two-lane road, Chatham North Parkway. With a posted speed limit of 45 miles per hour, a median and sidewalks on both sides, the parkway would traverse part of Pavao’s forested land. That includes a segment of Haven Creek, a tributary of the Haw River.
Yet Pavao is not the parkway’s only target. As a connector route for the enormous Chatham Park North Village development, this segment would consume a total of 32 acres—eight of it on privately owned land in the North Woods neighborhood. It would pass within about 100 feet of one home and sequester three neighbors whose houses would be on the other side of the parkway.
Meanwhile, if this section of parkway had remained true to its original route—just 600 feet east—it would have primarily passed through undeveloped land owned by Chatham Park Investors, the company behind the massive development.
DOT spokesman Aaron Moody said the original route might have required the relocation of a cemetery, as well as three homes that, under the current plan, are excised from their neighborhood. Three more streams—16 instead of the current 13—could have been affected.
This conundrum raises the question of why the $30 million parkway should be constructed at all. DOT’s own documents say North Village will be built regardless. While the parkway could improve the connection between north and south Pittsboro, according to state documents, its primary purpose is to benefit the transportation needs of residents and businesses within Chatham Park.
Some North Woods residents suspect that Chatham Park Investors and DOT, listed as partners on the route, moved the road to avoid encroaching on profitable lots that would eventually be sold for homes, townhouses and commercial buildings that could be built near the Haw River. The parkway is merely a private road, neighbors say, masquerading as a public one in order to allow DOT to use eminent domain, should it come to that.
Tim Smith, co-owner of Chatham Park Investors, said those allegations aren’t true. The road is necessary for Pittsboro’s growth, he said, and moving it east of North Woods would cause even more environmental damage. “Extensive stream beds would be destroyed,” he told Policy Watch in an email. “The grading and pollution would also be closer to the Haw River.”
Yet Chatham North Parkway, DOT documents state, will accelerate not only the development of Chatham Park, but other projects in this part of the Haw River watershed as well.
“This would not be the first time DOT would want to build a road through sensitive environmental areas or through communities,” Elaine Chiosso, executive director of the Haw River Assembly, said. (A recent example is the Complete 540 toll road in Wake County, which will cut through a mobile home park.)
DOT’s own documents acknowledge the sensitive environmental features along the current route, including an officially designated Critical Water Supply Watershed, impaired streams, a Wilderness Natural Heritage Program Area and suitable habitats for endangered species.
Nowhere in the DOT’s land use assessment is the North Woods neighborhood mentioned by name. Instead, the area is described as having “a few residences.”
“This is a long-standing rural community,” Pavao said. “There’s a full spectrum of opinions on Chatham Park, but no one wants a road through this land.”
Deep into the forest, DOT contractors have tied pink ribbons around dozens of standing trees to mark the proposed parkway route. Off Haven Road, Allen Cox built a quaint log cabin 20 years ago. He and his wife, Gina Cox, live here on 10 acres, but the parkway would take nearly a quarter of it, passing within roughly 20 feet of their yard. Their view, now a thicket of trees, would transform into a swath of pavement. The sound of birdsong would be drowned out by the low hum of passing cars.
Of the 17 households in North Woods, six would bear the direct brunt of the parkway. “But we will all be affected,” Gina Cox said, “since the road will destroy the character of this rural neighborhood.”
Ducka Kelly has lived on her five-acre horse farm in North Woods since 1998. “It seems immoral to take people’s land when [Chatham Park Investors] own land that they could use,” Kelly said.
It’s not lost on her that Chatham Park North Village calls for “biophilic”—nature-based design—when some of her neighbors will lose those very amenities. A herd of deer regularly visits Kelly’s farm. (She’s named the fawns: Blaze, Shadow, and Solo.)
“The mom parked the babies in my horse’s round pen like it was a playpen and then go off to graze,” Kelly said. “It was amazing to see this. My ‘biophilic needs’ have been met and I want them to continue to be.”
Despite the persistent and well-known environmental constraints near the Haw River, there have been plans to build a road near it for more than 10 years. In 2008 Pittsboro town officials in conjunction with DOT proposed a bypass on either side of U.S. 15-501. By 2011, they had sketched in the general area for the original Chatham North Parkway route.
Chatham Park Investors was established in 2004 when they began buying land. In 2015, Pittsboro officials approved the master plan for Chatham Park. From 2015-2019, developers purchased more property around the North Woods neighborhood for the future Chatham Park North Village.
Finally, in 2019, after the developers had purchased the last of the tracts, DOT moved the route west, to the North Woods.
Planning and land use documents show that North Village is not dependent on the parkway, “but that the road would be a benefit to developments … The parkway could be a driving factor in the location timing and type of development for the area.”
DOT spokesman Aaron Moody said the agency has not conducted a comprehensive environmental evaluation of the original route.
However, the developer’s report to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers showed that the original route would require building over steep slopes, streams, and wetlands. Building thousands of residences, as well as office space, on those hundreds of acres, said Tim Smith, would cause less damage than a road, because of open space and runoff requirements. No development can occur within 1,000 feet of the Haw River. But this land is not pristine. East of the neighborhood, timbering has carved up some of the acreages with dirt logging roads, according to state documents.
At 200 acres, the North Woods neighborhood is as ecologically valuable: a mix of dense forest, pasture, streams, flood plains, wetlands, and small horse farms. It serves as unbroken habitat for wildlife that has been displaced by the surrounding Chatham Park development.
Diana Dalsimer described North Woods as “an oasis.”
“We are stewards to this land and we take our neighborhood seriously,” she said.
The parkway, she said, is just the beginning. “They’re designing for a future where they take the whole area and make it uncomfortable for us to stay here.”
Haven Creek begins just west of the North Woods neighborhood, where Chatham Park Investors are building the Mosaic, a 226-acre mixed-use development. From there, the creek meanders through North Woods—and Pavao’s backyard—before heading through the proposed Chatham North Village land and emptying into the Haw River.
When Pavao initially moved here 24 years ago, the creek often ran dry in the summer. That is no longer the case. Not only is climate change responsible for the flooding, but nearby development and its associated pavement send water, clay, and silt into Haven Creek. Clear water turns orange in a matter of hours. “In the last five years, with the intense rainstorms, the water breaches its banks,” Pavao said. “This is a flood plain now and it didn’t used to be.”
In Orange and Chatham counties alone, nearly 50 miles of streams that feed the Haw River are designated as federally impaired, according to state environmental documents. Although Haven Creek isn’t one of them, Pavao is concerned about additional pollution, which would likely increase with the construction of the parkway over it. Moreover, North Woods residents rely on private drinking water wells; some neighbors have reported brown water flowing from their taps after a heavy rain.
The N.C. Department of Environmental Quality is also concerned about the effects of the parkway and North Village on the water. Last September, DEQ denied DOT and Chatham Park Investors’ water quality permit because it lacked information, including a justification of potential harm to streams and wetlands. DOT and Chatham Park Investors resubmitted the application; it is under review.
At a recent public hearing on the revised application, nearly every commenter, with the exception of the developers, opposed the route and asked for stricter standards for the North Village. Opponents cited not only concerns about water quality but also habitats for endangered species, such as the Cape Fear Shiner. A previous biological assessment by DOT concluded there were no bald eagles, but many commenters said that they often see the birds along this segment of the Haw River, and provided photos.
One elected official said that sacrificing the North Woods neighborhood for a long-term project is not only unwarranted but hasty. “Is there a need for this bypass, especially to primarily serve a subdivision that may or may not be built … ?” wrote Chatham County Commissioner Diana Hales. “The parkway should not destroy an existing neighborhood for 20,000 residents who may move here in the next 20 to 40 years.”
Other commenters disputed that the parkway served the greater good. “Taxpayers should not pay for the road, and eminent domain should not be used for the right of way, as it serves a private, not public purposed, said public commenter Liz Cullington, who does not live in the neighborhood. “Various state agencies have pointed out the circular argument presented and this has not been resolved,” she continued.
If the new route receives all of the necessary state and federal approvals, DOT would have to pay affected landowners for future parkway property. If the landowners refuse to accept the financial offer, then DOT could use eminent domain. Such action would likely wind up in court.
DOT has already conducted an illegal taking, Pavao said, in cutting 41 of his trees without permission. Moody of the DOT said that Pavao, an assistant attorney general, and Department of Justice staff “are working toward a solution together.”
“I sent them a bill,” Pavao said.
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