Will Chatham Park’s tree coverage plans change?

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Corrina Hill, 7, marches alongside her father during the “Procession of Trees” protest Feb. 15 at the historic Pittsboro, N.C. courthouse. The Haw River Assembly recently organized the protest after the Chatham Park development released a statement about tree protection to the Pittsboro Town Board. According to protestors, the proposal does not protect enough trees in Chatham County. (Adrianne Cleven/Our Chatham)

On February 25, the Town of Pittsboro held a board meeting to discuss and possibly vote on Chatham Park’s Tree Protection Plan Additional Element, which is one of more than a dozen additional elements that Pittsboro has voted on since the approval of Chatham Park’s initial plan.

This plan, if voted in, would give Chatham Park the ability to use its own ordinances over tree coverage on the 7,000 acres that the Park will be set on, instead of being under Pittsboro’s regulations.

Chatham Park, which boasts a logo of three trees and a promotional video that includes trees in most of the footage, has been a source heavy debate in Pittsboro and the surrounding area recently, as many believe that Chatham Park’s proposed plan of anywhere from 0 to 25 percent tree coverage – an average of 10 percent – is not enough.

The 0 percent is for designated ‘activity centers’, while residential lots would keep 20 percent of existing trees and 10 percent on non-residential lots. The size of activity centers have yet to be disclosed by Chatham Park.

Those numbers decrease further, to 3 and 10 percent respectively, in ‘village centers’ which are described as more urban areas on Chatham Park’s website.

The Tree Protection Plan was not voted on during the February 25 meeting, as many town residents raised complaints and town commissioners presented a list of items that they felt needed to be worked on or further explained in the plan.

Some of these items were:

  • Could a tree be counted more than once to satisfy tree coverage area?
  • Questions about the exempt status of non-residential and mixed use sites within village centers.
  • Street trees may be counted as tree coverage area.

Elaine Chiosso, executive director of Haw River Assembly, raised two additional questions about the plan:

  • Could you count trees as part of the tree coverage that aren’t going to be permanently there?
  • Could saplings count as mature trees in some instances?

Public outcry has been at an all-time high in Pittsboro, said Chiosso, who has seen a spike of over 8,000 hits or clicks on Facebook posts about the issue. One town commissioner mentioned receiving over 100 emails about the subject. Seventeen attendees were given time to speak at the February 25 town meeting, many giving emotionally-driven speeches.

Representation from the environmental club at Northwood High School was also there, a student announced that they had a petition for better tree coverage in Chatham Park with over 200 signatures.

On March 18, the Town of Pittsboro is holding a work session to focus solely on the Tree Protection Plan with town members, commissioners and representatives from Chatham Park.

Before this will be voted on, it is almost certain that Pittsboro town commissioners will have Chatham Park clarify these questions.

What are the Benefits of Trees?

While trees are most notably known for their ability to clean the air through the process of absorbing CO2 and releasing oxygen back into the air, they also they also trap dust and pollutants from the air.

David Haskell, a Pulitzer Prize finalist and professor of biology and environmental studies at University of the South, describes another way that trees can affect climate – in the way they change the temperature around them.

“But trees change the weather in a city. They have a significant cooling effect. They save a lot on air-conditioning,” said Haskell in Paul Kvinta’s “David Haskell Speaks for the Trees.”

An NC State project, titled “Trees of Strength” goes further into this.“The evaporation from a single tree can produce the cooling effect of 10 room size air conditioners operating 20 hours a day.”

However, the exemptions for “activity centers” and “urban” areas mean less trees in areas that will likely have a high concentration of people.

One more major impact that trees have on any environment is that their roots significantly reduce water runoff and soil erosion from storms.

This is important to note in Chatham Park, as much of the Park will be near the Haw River. Haw River Assembly has already made notice of this problem as early construction caused muddy runoff from recent heavy rains.

Diana Hales, a Chatham County commissioner, said that she hopes for changes to the tree plans, “because of climate change and reducing cleared ground sediment impacts on the Haw River, but the decision on that rests with the Town of Pittsboro.”

Additional Explanation of Chatham Park’s Tree Plans

“Chatham Park’s plan most closely resembled that of the City of Durham,” said Jeff Jones, Pittsboro town planning director, in early February.

However, the city of Durham has been moving away from their tree plan for months now, since TreesDurham announced recommendations for the city in October.

Some of these recommendations included more trees along streets, a minimum of 15 percent tree preservation in new developments and hiring experts to advise in planning.

This is part of Durham Mayor Steve Schewel’s plan to improve the city. He plans on Durham planting 60,000 trees in the next 20 years.

For further comparison, Charlotte, North Carolina, already boasts one of the highest tree coverage percentages – 47 percent – in the nation and they are planning to reach 50 percent by 2050.

Chapel Hill, while not quite at the tree coverage that Charlotte is at, protects tree coverage at 30-40 percent and has proposed making the process of removing trees even harder.

Further, a land-use plan was created by the town of Pittsboro in 2012 that allowed for a 2,000-foot-wide buffer alongside the Haw River, protecting the river from development along its banks. However, some are worried that this will be thrown out in the plans for Chatham Park’s development.

One Chatham Park map, seen below, shows housing developments near the river in what was considered a buffer zone in the 2012 plan.

Pittsboro resident Liz Cullington, who takes detailed notes of town board meetings and shares them, listed in her notes on the Chatham Park Additional Tree Element that it allows for trees near a development site to account for the percentage of tree coverage on the actual site.

Two Sides Pushing Against the Plans

To add onto the town board of commissioners holding meetings with residents, there was also a tree protest on February 22 in Pittsboro.

One town resident, Joyce Baird, mentioned that, “We moved to Chatham 30 years ago to be out in nature and have trees around us. And now things are changing and people are coming in to cut the trees that we’ve come to Chatham for.”

While townspeople express their displeasure with the tree plans, there have been ongoing discussions between the state of North Carolina, Chatham Park and the Town of Pittsboro over issues with it as well.

In early 2018, the state Division of Water Resources contacted the Town of Pittsboro over concerns that state mitigation strategies about wastewater in the Haw River were not being held up by the town.

Months after the state’s letter to Pittsboro, contested case hearing petitions were sent in by Pittsboro and Chatham Park, on the issue of the commitments in the mitigation strategies. Both parties claimed that the State agency had “otherwise substantially prejudiced my rights” and “exceeded its authority or jurisdiction, acted erroneously and failed to use proper procedure,” among other complaints.

The discussions between the state and the two Chatham County parties have been pushed back multiple times since then and the Southern Environmental Law Center filed on behalf of the Haw River Assembly to intervene in the case for the state in November 2018.

The judge has yet to decide on possible intervention.

March 11 is the deadline for discussions between the State and Chatham Park / Pittsboro.

Chiosso, from Haw River Assembly, is hopeful that multiple sides scrutinizing the tree plans will aid in making change.

Thanks to Zen Shoemaker for asking the question that inspired this week’s story! 

Want to learn more about Chatham Park’s tree coverage plans? Do you have an idea for a follow-up story? We base our journalism on reader questions, so send them our way if you would like to inspire further reporting!

2 thoughts on “Will Chatham Park’s tree coverage plans change?

  1. Trent Brown’s article, “Will Chatham Park’s tree coverage plans change?” provides for Chatham citizens the same thing that forests and woodlands do, a breath of fresh air.

    I will personally breathe easier knowing that we now have the choice to reference a new media source for strong, investigative, non-biased reporting anchored by the UNC Chapel Hill School of Media and Journalism. What a timely and unexpected blessing we have been given.

    Please keep digging deep into the fertile soil of Chatham citizen concerns regarding not only Chatham Park’s dubious messaging on “tree canopy” percentages, but its unconvincing rhetoric of being an “exemplary” development. If their tree protection element is peddled as being exemplary, what light does this shed on the rest of their hyperbole?

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