If you left this week’s Pittsboro Board of Commissioners meeting feeling a bit confused, you’re in good company. If you left with a sense of clarity, you aren’t alone either.
Most of the meeting’s discussion surrounded the Chatham Park Tree Protection Element, which the commissioners passed in a 3-2 vote May 28.
This week, the board discussed five wording changes to the Element and a few other town issues in a meeting that stretched over three hours.
According to a written statement from Chatham Park representative Chuck Smith, there are “no further changes or next steps” planned for the Element, which he says has been a “focus” since November 2018.
Though the development’s website includes environmental stewardship in the “core values” and representatives have pledged to keep the Chatham Park’s tree canopy level at “at least 50 percent,” environmental issues have been at the forefront of the conversation for months.
If there’s one woman responsible for that, it’s Elaine Chiosso, executive director of the Haw River Assembly. Chiosso called the board’s late-night passage of the Tree Element May 28 a “midnight coup.”
“[Commissioner] Michael Fiocco is basically acting as an advocate for Chatham Park,” she said. “And for the most part, [Commissioner] Jay Farrell and [Mayor Pro Tem] Pamela Baldwin kind of defer to him.”
But she empathized with a board that has spent a great deal of time reading drafts of Chatham Park elements, which she calls “unnecessarily difficult.”
“I think the board is sometimes so inundated with information that it’s hard to think straight,” she said. “I’m not even blaming them.”
One key issue that has captivated discussion of Chatham Park’s development has been the amount of tree coverage near the banks of the Haw River.
“The master plan approved a few years ago established a 300’ buffer along one portion of the Haw River and 500’ along another portion,” Smith wrote. And Chiosso walked me through the buffer zone issue from north to south:
“What they voted on and was clarified,” she said, “is that it’s still a 300-foot buffer on the Haw River in the more northern section – close to Bynum Beach Road – then immediately downstream of that is the first big piece of the state natural area, and then you go south of that and there is the next section. That’s the part that’s designated as a park, and that’s where there’s a 1,000-foot buffer. Then it’s all state natural area or private land that’s not Chatham Park.”
During the meeting, commissioner Bett Foley said she appreciated the ways that Chatham Park had changed the element. But she still wished for a “higher protection” of a 2,000-foot riparian buffer along the Haw River.
“I’m pleased with everything else,” she said. “But that’s the one piece that will keep me from voting in favor.”
Smith called language in the Tree Protection Element “pretty clear” and stated, in an email, “A majority of the Board understood it well enough to vote affirmatively for its passage.”
He does not feel there is any disconnect between Chatham Park organizers and the Pittsboro Board of Commissioners. Instead, he thinks that many residents may not be doing their homework on the issue.
“For whatever reason,” he wrote, “community members have chosen not to ask questions of staff or others who actually work with ordinances of this type,” he wrote to Our Chatham. “They have, instead, chosen to publicly express dissatisfaction or concern based on what they have heard without investing the time necessary to understand the issues they are complaining about. As a result, many of these opinions are completely off base because they are based on half-truths, a misunderstanding of facts, or erroneous conclusions.”
No matter where one stands on Chatham Park’s environmental impact, it has no doubt captured the community’s emotions.
According to Chiosso, the Pittsboro Commissioners told her they have “received more letters on this issue than anything they had received before.”
But back to the meeting, where one moment struck me as particularly emblematic: Mayor Perry spoke publicly with Kenneth Eagle, a lawyer working with Chatham Park’s parent company, Preston Development, about a particular item in the element:
“My only worry is that as we go through things, sometimes we don’t understand all the repercussions,” she said. “And this matter is so complex that–”
Eagle chimed in:
“This matter is very straightforward and simple.”