Chatham County citizens will soon have a chance to comment on the guidelines that will govern development of the so-called “compact communities”–large, stand-alone residential neighborhoods with “town centers” like the proposed Briar Chapel along U.S. 15-501 between Chapel Hill and Pittsboro.

The guidelines are the first result of a citizen-based process called the Land Use Plan Implementation Committee (LUPIC), started by Gary Phillips, the former commissioners chairman, in 2001. Since Phillips lost his seat to Bunkey Morgan in 2002, though, the regulations are headed to approval in a very different political climate. Along the way, some critics say, each successive draft has lost teeth–especially the latest version, released Dec. 18.

For example, initial proposals from LUPIC called for a cap of 1,000 acres per mega-development, enough to support a maximum of roughly 1,500 homes. Thanks to the political shift in 2002, along with input from Briar Chapel parent Newland Communities and other building interests, developers can now put up to 2,500 houses in one community.

The Land Use Plan Implementation Committee strongly supported a volunteer citizen water-quality board to help oversee and control the effects of new development on Chatham County’s watersheds. That proposal has disappeared altogether.

When the final draft of the compact communities ordinance went public right before the holidays, citizens who had followed the process were outraged by the changes made by the county attorneys.

“The 12/18/03 CCO draft is in fact a second shameless effort by outside developers and fast-growth profiteers to take over Chatham County’s democratic process entirely,” Pittsboro resident Ed King wrote to commissioners on Jan. 4. “Who’s in charge of the development process in Chatham County anyway–Briar Chapel’s California windfall profiteers or the people who live in this county?”

Chatham Citizens for Effective Communities, a newly minted group that had supported the guidelines with some reservations, withdrew its support entirely when the new draft emerged.

“It was as if a year and a half of intensive work put in by the commissioners, planning board, LUPIC and input by the public had been wiped out with red pencil,” the group wrote in a position paper this week. “The citizens, and indeed the county of Chatham, deserve better protection and planning.”

Overall, it’s a work in progress, Commissioners Chairman Tommy Emerson said at an October work session, advocating moving forward with the guidelines and revising them down the road as necessary.

“When you plow new ground, sometimes you make mistakes,” said Emerson, a man frequently given to farming metaphors. “But you don’t wait until you plowed the whole field before you straighten out the blade.”

Public hearing information and draft copies are available at The commissioners are expected to schedule a public hearing next month, after the planning board reviews the draft again on Jan. 27.