While citizens and elected leaders in Chatham County work to shape rules that will govern enormous subdivisions like the 2,500-home Briar Chapel project headed their way, a second mega-development nearly as large is taking shape under the public radar–and outside the jurisdiction of the county’s proposed regulations.

A national homebuilding company is proposing a 1,000-acre luxury community of about 2,000 homes, townhouses and condos around a golf course northeast of Pittsboro, says Pittsboro Planning Director David Monroe, who received a “sketch plan” for the project at the end of December.

The plans are preliminary and no formal application has been submitted, says Monroe, adding that the developer is still in the process of acquiring land. In the few weeks since the proposal first appeared, it has grown from an initial plan of about 1,500 homes on 886 acres to more than 2,000 homes on about 1,000 acres, according to revised plans received early this month, Monroe says.

The Pennsylvania-based developer, Toll Brothers, has built similar projects across the U.S., including the 1,200-home Brier Creek Country Club community in northwestern Wake County. That development, which hosts an Arnold Palmer golf course and a 40,000-square-foot clubhouse, broke ground in 1999 and now anchors a booming residential and commercial area in the center of the Triangle, bordered by Raleigh-Durham International Airport, U.S. 70 and Research Triangle Park.

The Pittsboro proposal calls for a variety of upscale housing types and a golf course, and designates three school sites within the development, which would be off Eubanks Road between Pittsboro’s northeastern town limits and the Haw River.

“Personally, I think this development is not in keeping with Pittsboro,” says Monroe, noting the demand for services that a project that size generates, including water and sewer capacity needs that Pittsboro currently can’t meet. “It’s certainly not the same scope and scale as traditional Pittsboro.”

Because a sketch plan is merely a heads-up to town planners, no further steps will be taken until and unless the developer submits a formal application, Monroe says. After that, the application would be presented at a public hearing, and the town planning board and the town commissioners would make comments and recommendations. Officials with Toll Brothers’ corporate headquarters in Pennsylvania said the company doesn’t comment on pending projects.

Although it’s technically outside the municipal limits, the proposal falls inside Pittsboro’s planning boundary, called the extra-territorial jurisdiction, where land-use decisions are the responsibility of Pittsboro’s planning department and town commissioners.

That means the plans would not be subject to Chatham County’s proposed “compact communities ordinance,” a controversial set of proposed guidelines aimed at regulating the various facets of self-contained planned neighborhoods and minimizing their impact on surrounding neighborhoods and the environment. After nearly two years of drafts and reviews by a citizen committee, planning board members and county commissioners, the guidelines are expected to be finished this spring. The county planning board is set to review them again on Jan. 27, after a contentious Jan. 5 commissioners meeting in which citizens accused county leaders of kowtowing to development interests in revising the latest draft.

The rules for large planned communities have been one focal point of the growth debate in Chatham County, where a developer-friendly political climate, attractive scenery, cheap raw land and easy commutes to jobs have invited an unprecedented wave of proposals for new houses and shopping centers. (See “Paradise Tossed,” www.indyweek.com/durham/2004-01-07/cover.html)

Pittsboro has shared in that boom, with two new developments of residential and commercial projects currently in the works for the north side of town at the U.S. 15-501 and U.S. 64 Bypass intersection.

“It’s as if the development world has finally caught up with the gem that’s out here,” says Monroe. “Certainly, Chatham County has become a desirable place to develop.”