Many Pittsboro residents feel they are being bullied by Chatham Park investors, and they say the town’s leaders are complicit.

Citizens’ group Pittsboro Matters filed a lawsuit in Chatham County Superior Court last week, suing the Town Board of Commissioners and challenging its decision to approve the re-zoning of 7,120 acres for Chatham Park.

Described as a “sequel” to RTP and inviting comparisons to Chapel Hill’s Meadowmont, the development has been controversial from the outset. Fully built, the proposed mixed-use development would add 55,000 new residents to the rural community of 4,000.

At the size of 5,340 football fields, it’s the largest mixed-use planned development ever proposed in North Carolina.

“The existing plan is a bad plan,” said Amanda Roberts, a Pittsboro Matters member. “It puts Chatham Park investors in the driver’s seat, and it should never be that way. The town should not relinquish our rights. They have given it all away.”

Pittsboro Commissioners did not respond to an INDY request for comment on the lawsuit. They have 30 days to answer the plaintiffs’ complaint, according to Pittsboro Matters’ attorney, Robert Hornik Jr.

The lawsuit claims that in approving the Chatham Park master plan, the Pittsboro Town Board violated the state constitution, statutes on zoning approval and the town’s own zoning requirements. Pittsboro Matters says the Planned Development District (PDD) ordinance, which Chatham Park investors helped craft, is inconsistent with the town’s land use plan.

The plaintiffs also allege the PDD violates Pittsboro’s zoning ordinances and that regulations contained in the master plan “are so vague as to be unenforceable.”

Chatham Park is a project of developer Tim Smith of Preston Development Co., which is based in Raleigh. Early on, SAS Institute founders James Goodnight and John Sall were also involved in Chatham Park, but during an interview with WUNC in March, Goodnight distanced himself from the plan.

Chatham Park investors are downplaying the opposition from Pittsboro citizens.

“We are disappointed to learn that a small group of individuals feels the need to file a complaint against the Town of Pittsboro Board of Commissioners regarding Chatham Park’s zoning approval,” Preston Development Company said in an emailed statement. “We believe that the Commissioners did their due diligence prior to taking a vote by holding public hearings, during which residents could express their thoughts and concerns regarding the development.”

In the year since Chatham Park came before town officials, the plan has undergone multiple rewrites and survived a scathing consultant’s report that criticized it for a lack of vision. In addition, there has been a change in town leadership: Former mayor Randy Voller supported the project. Bill Terry, elected last fall, shares residents’ concerns.

A development of this size in Pittsboro became possible last year, when Chatham Park investors, with town officials, crafted the ordinance known as the PDD to guide a Chatham Park master plan and its implementation. The master plan is vague, opponents say, and the development violates the PDD.

Nonetheless, Pittsboro’s Board of Commissioners voted to approve the master plan for Chatham Park 4-1. Bett Wilson Foley cast the lone dissenting vote.

Pittsboro residents have told town officials they oppose Chatham Park because of its potential impact on the environment, small-town character and quality of life.

They say Chatham Park investors ignored a consultant’s recommendations to set aside a percentage of land for conservation, recreation and schools, to reduce development near the Haw River, Pittsboro’s drinking water source, and to require detailed guidelines before plans are approved.

Residents say Pittsboro leaders have failed them.

“I don’t think local officials understand the power they actually have,” says Pittsboro Matters’ Jeffrey Starkweather. “They’re like a deer in headlights when a developer comes in promising jobs. … [Chatham Park investors] threatened to form their own town and people believed it. They didn’t understand those threats couldn’t have any effect on them.”

The case will be litigated at the expense of Chatham Park investors, per an agreement with the Town of Pittsboro. Roberts of Pittsboro Matters acknowledges that citizens had the opportunity to express their opinions about Chatham Park. However, she said that town leaders ignored them, as they ignored the Lawrence Group’s recommendations.

“It is unconscionable that a large development company would try to shove down the throat of a tiny little town something so impactful when they had the means to do it right,” she said. “It’s appalling.”

Roberts and Starkweather emphasize that their goal is not to stop a Chatham Park development completely, but to overturn the existing master plan and craft a scaled-down, more detailed PDD with residents’ full input.

“I think this case is historic,” Starkweather says. “People who want to protect what remains of natural areas in North Carolina, and to make development compatible with that and keep local control of land use by citizens, all have a stake with us in this lawsuit.”

A version of this story originally appeared last week on the INDY‘s news blog.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Law of the land”