When the Chatham County Commissioners had trouble deciding how many homes ought to be allowed in the mega-developments descending on the county’s forests and farmland, Commissioner Bunkey Morgan knew whom to ask.

The developers.

“We’re willing to work with the potential applicant, and the potential applicant was–and is–willing to work with us,” Morgan said during an October work session. He turned to the audience, where a rep for Newland Communities, which wants to build the enormous Briar Chapel subdivision, was sitting, and asked: “So, does Newland have a number?”

“The same as it was last time–2,250 should cover it,” answered the Newland rep. With support from his colleagues, Morgan then proposed a cap of 2,500, just in case.

Developers writing their own rules is just one way the building and real estate industries have hijacked the public interest in Chatham County. In the wake of Morgan’s special-interest-funded ouster of growth-control advocate Gary Phillips in the fall of 2002, Chatham, which has long offered an affordable retreat for young professionals, retirees, artists and nature-lovers, is headed for widespread clear-cutting in the Triangle’s most unregulated county. Where only about 600 new homes sprouted in each of the last couple of years, 5,000 are now proposed, along with as many as five new shopping centers.

Emblematic of the change is the 1,500-acre Briar Chapel project. After having its plan unanimously rejected in May 2002 by the previous board of commissioners, California-based Newland now has direct access to–and influence over–county leaders’ big-picture planning for the future. And Briar Chapel’s approval now seems assured.

“The political climate now compared to a year ago is very, very different,” says Larry Hicks, who chairs the only long-range planning effort to ever gain traction in Chatham–perhaps too late. “We don’t have any organization to manage the onslaught.”

A combination of geography and politics have made Chatham the next hotspot in the Triangle real estate market. It’s adjacent to RTP, Cary and Durham, yet has no growth controls in place, a development-friendly majority running the county, and a citizen constituency that’s just beginning to see the forest as the trees start disappearing.

The roots of the real estate boom reach back 30 years, when Chatham County had two kinds of roads: winding scenic routes with one lane in each direction, and dirt.

Situated in the southwest corner of a booming Triangle, Chatham offered a slightly out-of-the-way place for urban refugees escaping the hubbub but wanting access to the plentiful jobs and cultural opportunities across the borders. New residents came in single families or small bedroom communities with a few acres around each house, charmed by a real soda fountain in Pittsboro’s old-fashioned downtown and enchanted by cricket songs along the Haw River on a summer evening. For the most part, the newcomers co-existed congenially with Chatham’s native farmers, textile and poultry workers and mom-and-pops, though the daily coffee-and-cigarette klatch of old-timers at Ronny’s Quik Stop still will rib you as an “outsider” if you’ve lived there only 57 of your 60 years.

In the mid-1970s, a former dairy farm about halfway between Pittsboro and the Orange County line to its north gave birth to Chatham’s first “planned community.” As Fearrington Village replaced its milk producers with black-and-white Belted Galloways for rustic scenic props, local leaders, citizens and business community members glimpsed the future. Around 1978, they launched the first of many long-range land-use planning efforts. County commissioners sought ways to balance residential and economic growth, protect agriculture and the environment and continue providing public services like schools and libraries.

Those first recommendations were never enacted. Over the next quarter-century, other plans attempted by citizens, elected officials and business leaders also failed to come to fruition.

Meanwhile, fueled by the RTP-driven job market, the suburban sprawl of malls and cookie-cutter subdivisions began to consume counties on Chatham’s northern and eastern boundaries while their elected officials struggled with questions like how to afford more schools and perpetually widen roads.

Eventually, as more commuters began to call Chatham home, county and state officials decided upgrades were in order for Chatham’s two main travel corridors–U.S. 15-501 running north-south, and U.S. 64 east-west. Land speculators began to put their money where the improvements were, and developers from Raleigh to California began eyeing the market, envisioning enormous bedroom communities surrounded by grocery stores and shopping centers.

In 1998, progressive activist Gary Phillips promised citizens some control over their county’s future and unseated Henry Dunlap, a 24-year incumbent commissioner. Under Phillips’ leadership as chairman, long-range strategic growth planning finally found fertile soil, with adoption of the county’s first land conservation and development plan in November 2001. Six months later, a collection of citizens called the Land Use Plan Implementation Committee, headed by Larry Hicks, began drafting proposals to protect the public interest, the environment, and the local economy from the rush of development headed toward it.

While Phillips and his allies on the five-member board cultivated the fledgling growth controls and–with a standing ovation–soundly rejected Briar Chapel as too big, a coalition of developers, homebuilders, real estate deal-makers and other growth interests picked up the fight. They formed two organizations to target Phillips: Chatham County NOW, a group of Siler City business people; and a political action committee calling itself the “Concerned Citizens and Business Community Group,” which is headed and bankrolled by Pittsboro ReMax real estate agents.

To get Morgan, a wealthy car-wash owner elected, they introduced big-city techniques never before seen in Chatham’s down-home elections, like slick mailers and push-polling, where telemarketers ask questions that cast aspersions on the opposition. They were coached by another homebuilders’ front group, Raleigh’s Triangle Community Coalition, and generously funded by development interests both inside and outside of Chatham. (See “How Bunkey Won,” Oct. 2, 2002, www.indyweek.com/durham/2002-10-02/triangles.html .)

Morgan changed his political affiliation and moved his “official” address to challenge Phillips in the District 4 Democratic primary after running unsuccessfully as a Republican in his own district two years earlier. (See “Is There a Price on Gary Phillips’ Head?,” March 6, 2002, www.indyweek.com/durham/2002-03-06/triangles.html) Playing on western Chatham voters’ support for landowners’ rights, hunger for new jobs to replace their waning agricultural and manufacturing strongholds, fear of rising property taxes, and disdain for Birkenstock-wearing northeastern “Chathamohicans,” the pro-growth coalition put a builder-friendly majority in charge. Along with Morgan, voters chose newcomer Tommy Emerson, a retired Siler City businessman and part-time farmer, who led the opposition to reforming the county’s hog-waste pollution laws, another Phillips initiative. In the third seat up for grabs, incumbent and Morgan sympathizer Carl Outz was re-elected.

They now hold sway in a county without a cohesive long-range vision or direction, and no land-use planning tools in place, thanks to the previous quarter-century of benign neglect. In large portions of the county, in fact, there’s no zoning at all. With the widening of the two major thoroughfares easing commutes to neighboring counties, a 16-inch water main along U.S. 15-501, cheap raw land in large chunks and (at least for now) attractive pastoral ambiance, Chatham’s rolling hills and forests and plentiful Haw River and Jordan Lake scenery offer a perfect climate for unbridled growth. The market has certainly taken notice of the changing politics, with Briar Chapel waiting in the wings to house more people than the county’s two largest cities, Pittsboro and Siler City, combined. Two other large residential subdivisions were proposed last year and several shopping centers are now taking shape.

A month after the new board of commissioners took office, Wake County real estate magnate Tommy Fonville won approval for 700 homes and a golf course on the banks of Dry Creek along N.C. 87, heralding the new era.

“We have nothing but positive views of Chatham County,” says Fonville, one of Morgan’s many financial supporters in the building industry. “Chatham County has a good future, it’s got good leadership, and the leadership will make good decisions.”

Fonville, a founder of the Fonville-Morisey real estate firm in Raleigh, owns about 2,000 acres northwest of Pittsboro under his corporation Chatham Partners, which is now the fourth largest landowner in the county. Buck Mountain, the golf-course community, is planned for roughly 800 acres; Fonville isn’t saying what his plans are for the rest. (For an update on one resident’s land battle with Fonville, see “One Woman’s Battle Won,” this page.)

Another new neighborhood of 475 half-million-dollar houses called The Homestead is planned along Jordan Lake, where watershed protection rules limit development to one house on every five acres. Its developer is seeking an exemption to put one house on each acre; the proposal is due for a vote this spring.

Closer to the county seat, Pittsboro is cultivating its first two buds of suburban sprawl. Homegrown Chatham developer Ricky Spoon is building a 25-acre shopping center on one corner of the U.S. 15-501 and the new U.S. 64 bypass intersection. Chapel Hill’s East-West Partners, headed by UNC-Chapel Hill trustee and Meadowmont developer Roger Perry, is building a mixed-use project of homes, stores and offices on the opposite corner.

“The pace of things has definitely changed,” says Keith Megginson, the county’s planning director since 1979.

Megginson believes Chatham would face the same growth pressures regardless of the outcome of the 2002 election. But the election ensured the rezoning requests and conditional-use permit applications now rolling in would find more sympathetic ears. And developers know that land-use regulations are subject to a wide variety of interpretations that blow with the political wind.

For example, when a Charlotte developer proposed putting a grocery store and a collection of retail and commercial buildings on 28 acres at U.S. 15-501 and Lystra Road last fall, the planning board split on whether the project, called Chatham Downs, qualified for a conditional-use permit, which was necessary because the land wasn’t zoned for a shopping center. In addition to citing the sprawl factor, opponents argued a new grocery store right across the highway from the future site of Briar Chapel was overkill, since the development is slated to have its own commercial center.

The plan, accompanied by protest petitions signed by more than 1,300 residents, went to the commissioners on Dec. 8. Commissioners Bob Atwater and Margaret Pollard, who often voted with Phillips on growth-control issues, urged denial but then voted for it rather than lose 2-3.

Planning board member Jennifer Andrews, whom Morgan appointed last summer, supported the shopping center because, she says, it wasn’t fair to reject the proposal on the argument that another grocery store may evolve at Briar Chapel. She also wanted the property and sales tax revenue the project might bring, and believes that projects like Chatham Downs will encourage employers to locate in Chatham and provide jobs.

“You’ve got to have some nice houses and infrastructure to bring industrial and commercial tax base,” says Andrews, a real estate attorney and developer who also sits on the county’s Economic Development Commission. “For a long time, I think Chatham’s been too complacent in its care of these issues. Our wait-and-see attitude will hurt us.”

At issue was whether Chatham Downs met the five-question criteria required for a conditional use permit–among them, whether the project was “desirable.”

“There’s a lot of subjectivity in our process,” says Atwater, who, with Pollard, is up for re-election later this year. “Given the diversity of opinion in Chatham County, hanging anything on the question of desirability alone is asking for trouble.”

That subjectivity is subject to much debate these days, as those in the majority call for flexibility and those alarmed by the tidal wave of construction call for more specific, tangible limits.

The debate now raging over the compact communities ordinance, which is expected to come up for a public hearing next month, is another key example of the crucial debate over details.

The political climate is also preventing some growth controls from taking root in the first place. In one recent example, the planning board and staff worked for months last fall drafting new regulations for outdoor lighting–the sort of bread-and-butter ordinance that governing boards can use to protect their communities from the various side-effects of bad design, like fluorescent daylight glaring from a new gas station all night. When the proposal went to the commissioners, they couldn’t reach consensus. Faced with a split vote in favor, Chairman Tommy Emerson chose to avoid the decision altogether. The result was a set of optional lighting recommendations, which developers can choose to obey, or not.

Other proposals haven’t progressed that far.

Over the years, various leaders have floated ideas like countywide zoning and transfer-of-development rights, where growth patterns are influenced by offering more density in exchange for not building in areas the community wants protected. Neither has garnered any momentum.

The wide swaths of unzoned land along U.S. 64 between Pittsboro and Siler City offer a risky blank slate, says planning board chairman George Lucier.

“Eventually, a series of objectionable things will happen to sway the county to expand its zoning authority,” he says. “Unfortunately, by then it will be too late.”

The county also has difficulty enforcing the regulations it does have on the books. Some environmental rules designed to protect the fragile watersheds of the Haw River and Jordan Lake–both of which serve as drinking water sources–have no one to enforce them. Megginson, the planning director, says he has requested funding for an erosion control officer three years in a row; three years in a row it’s been cut from the budget. Commissioners have discussed raising building permit fees to help fund the position, but so far that initiative hasn’t gotten off the ground, either, says Atwater, noting that builders will object to any proposals that add to their costs. Megginson’s own staff is also overwhelmed with the flood of plans washing across their desks, but there’s been no money for additional planners, either.

Meanwhile, the people who stand to profit from the building boom are busy cultivating an environment in which various projects can flourish.

One change is taking place on the planning board, where commissioners recently appointed McBee, the Chatham County NOW founder, and Andrews, the real estate attorney and developer. Trolling through county land records reveals the many intricate relationships among the architects of Chatham’s future.

In just one example, Andrews’ cash crop is representing developers like Ricky Spoon, the county’s seventh largest landowner, in legal matters. For her development company, Andrews employs surveyor Charles Eliason, the vice chair of the county planning board on which they both now serve.

And Bunkey Morgan has been busy raking in post-election campaign donations to repay himself the nearly $14,000 in personal money he used to seed his campaign–outraging citizens who suspected the building industry was backing him but couldn’t see his contributors’ list until long after the votes were tallied. Since his Sept. 10, 2002 win, Morgan has received large checks from people who are presumably pleased with the change in Chatham’s climate. People such as:

  • Fonville, whose Buck Mountain golf-course community sailed through just a month after Morgan took office ($500)
  • Holland Gaines, the manager of Jordan Lake LLC, the developer of the Homestead project now under consideration ($250)
  • Pittsboro resident Blanche Hamlet and her family, who own nearly 700 acres of developable land in the southeastern part of the county ($7,000 total from three family members, the bulk of it after the election)
  • Seth Wooten, president of the S.T. Wooten Corp., whose asphalt plant expansion in Redbud was pushed through the commissioners by Morgan last spring over the vociferous objections of neighboring citizens ($4,000, the legal maximum)

Morgan agrees his supporters share his views on development.

“I would guess that Gary [Phillips, the incumbent he beat] got his money from people who don’t want growth,” says Morgan. “So I think it’s six in one, half-dozen in the other.”

Another major Morgan donor, the Concerned Citizens and Business Committee PAC, is organized and funded by real estate agents Linda Jacobs, Anne Hedgecock and Scott Thomas. It played a significant PR role in the 2002 election, and swung back into action last fall as the compact communities guidelines headed into their final stages. In late October, the PAC published half-page ads in local papers claiming “Bigger is Better!” when it comes to residential development and touting the benefits of growth.

“New homes do translate into new jobs–and that’s good for Chatham County and good for all of us,” read the second of two ads, which appeared Oct. 30. “New homes make good ‘cents’ for Chatham County.”

Hedgecock, who placed the ads, declined to be interviewed.

The fallout from the lack of cohesive planning is beginning to spark public debate about who should pay for public amenities like schools, fire and rescue services, libraries and other infrastructure new residents will require.

For his part, Morgan believes that residential and commercial development are the key to the county’s economic future.

“I love Chatham being a rural county, but you’ve got to have something that’s going to make money and provide jobs,” he says. “I firmly believe you’ve got to have more people before you can have jobs.”

Mark McBee, the Siler City businessman who formed the anti-Phillips Chatham NOW group in 2002 and was rewarded with a seat on the planning board last summer, argues that residential growth eventually sets its own limits.

“You don’t get a choice between a compact community like Briar Chapel and no growth at all. If there’s well and septic, they can come. And if you try to slow it down, you wind up with more unplanned growth,” says McBee, who has recently taken to shadowing the board chair to provide his personal viewpoint whenever Lucier presents information. “The thing that’s going to limit sprawl is the traffic jams for people trying to commute to Orange County or RTP.”

That argument doesn’t sit well with Roland McReynolds, a young RTP lawyer who moved from Chapel Hill to Bynum Ridge Road four years ago.

“People in the county do need better services, more schools, and we don’t have the tax base,” says McReynolds, one of a growing number of citizens stepping up to speak in the public debate. “How are we going to get the money? That’s the question everyone should be talking about. But that’s where the developers have completely controlled the debate, by saying, ‘Here’s how you do it.’”

Whether the business PAC’s “New homes make good ‘cents’” campaign furthered its cause remains to be seen, but one probably unintended result was to stir up neighborhood activism.

As the development community watches the seeds it sowed in the 2002 election begin to bloom, the people who call Chatham home are beginning to wake up and smell the flowers. In the 16 months since the election, two new citizens’ groups have begun raising their voices to provide more public input at planning board and commissioners meetings. One, Chatham Citizens for Effective Communities, organized in March with just a few dozen members concerned about Briar Chapel’s effect on the northeastern quadrant of the county. Its mailing list now holds 1,400 members working on issues like countywide water quality protection and school capacity.

After gathering somewhat quietly behind the scenes for months, hosting educational forums and seeking civil discourse with elected officials, CCEC went loudly public in reaction to the October PAC campaign.

“There’s a huge grassroots movement in this county and it’s doubled in the last year,” says Mary Bastin, the president of CCEC and a nine-year resident of Fearrington Village. “They need to know we’ll come back–they need to know we’re here for the long haul.”

The group published ads of their own, laying out the costs of sprawl and playing on the name of their new commissioner with the slogan, “It’s time to debunk the ‘bigger is better’ myth.”

As 2003 progressed, group leaders also realized they needed more voices to be heard above the development din.

So, one Monday night in mid-December, a citizen coalition gathered at the Pittsboro Memorial Library to trade war stories and figure out how to influence the future of the county. An assortment of natives, long-term transplants and newcomers, they came from CCEC, Chatham County United, the Southeast Chatham Advisory Council and a Siler City group called Voices for Action.

“It’s started, and it’s not going to end,” said Patrick Barnes, who last summer organized 450 of his neighbors to fight off Cary’s proposal to annex across the county line into their neighborhood–with no help from their own elected leaders on the county commission. “To control the growth in the way that the people in the county want it, not what’s being thrust upon us, Chatham County needs a very solid land-use plan. And we need a coalition of all these groups–even though each one has its own issues, we can back each other up.”

Barnes’ group, Chatham United, stormed the Cary Town Council meeting waving placards saying “Stay the hell out of Chatham County.” Cary backed off. The group secured another victory in early December, blocking a Cary park in their neighborhood.

The irony of those successes did not escape Mike Fox. A leader of the Southeast Chatham Advisory Council, Fox pointed out to his fellow coalition members that Cary’s elected officials responded favorably to Chatham residents’ concerns the very same week that the Chatham County commissioners ignored the protests of more than 1,300 of their own constituents in welcoming Chatham Downs, the new strip mall on U.S. 15-501.

“I don’t think our county commissioners are going to be saying ‘no’ to much,” said Fox, whose group advocates for citizens’ interests in the Moncure area, particularly focusing on industrial pollution.

“Why not change the county commissioners, then?” Barnes asked.

“We did change them,” Fox replied. “Unfortunately, we got rid of the ones who were trying to slow down growth.”

Chatham County Top 25

Taxpayer NameAcreageTotal Land / Bldg Value
U.S. Government (primarily Jordan Lake)38,566.08$162,029,560
Carolina Power & Light8,379.14$16,272,837
Chatham Partners (Tommy Fonville’s firm)2,032.71$4,709,985
Minnesota Mining & Mfg. Co (3M)1,976.65$7,296,565
Triangle Land Conservancy (a local nonprofit)1,388.54$2,910,090
Ricky Spoon Builders Inc.1,324.50$8,710,022
E.M. Harris Jr. Family1,289.21$2,023,572
Canal Land & Timber1,274.84$1,849,713
Chatham Land & Timber (the Danek family)1,161.26$4,176,213
Big Woods I-III Partnership (the Barber family)1,097.93$2,211,362
Cameron Properties1,026.08$4,488,150
R.D. Lee Farms Inc993.84$2,070,974
Jordan Timberlands Inc961.12$1,096,696
Chatham Ridge (a Waste Industries, USA affiliate)917.96$1,976,750
Duke University913.71$2,427,656
John E. Booth Farms888.30$2,670,099
James L. Deloache837.94$1,624,415
ITAC 27 LLC (Investors Title Accommodation Co.)805.56$1,346,916
Cherokee Land Company801.37$1,230,715
Roger & Roland Phillips801.32$1,556,668
Frank D. Hayes790.59$1,356,175
Louis C. Smith782.09$1,677,684
Chatham County758.94$7,234,815
Robert G. & Jack Hancock752.38$1,298,978
Source: Chatham Co. Land Records and Tax Office

Get involved

These citizen groups are raising their voices in Chatham County:

Chatham Citizens for Effective Communities
P.O. Box 236
Bynum, NC 27228
Mary Bastin, President
Phone: 919-444-4268
Fax: 919-968-9869
E-mail: info@chathamcitizens.org
Web site: www.chathamcitizens.org

Southeast Chatham Citizens Advisory Council
P.O. Box 252
Moncure, NC 27559
Fax: 919-545-3096
E-mail: southeast_chatham@ yahoo. com
Meets the third Tuesday of every month at the Liberty Chapel United Church of Christ, 1855 Old. U.S. 1, Moncure

Chatham County United
274 McCoy Road
Apex, NC 27523
Patrick Barnes, President
Phone: 919-362-7270
E-mail: chathamcntyunite@bellsouth.net
Web site: www.chathamcounited.com