A contentious state road project in Pittsboro might have hit a detour last week, after town leaders unanimously recommended transportation officials to analyze yet another alternate route for the $30 million North Chatham Park Way, one that would avoid lopping off part of the bucolic North Woods neighborhood.
Aaron Moody, spokesman for the NC Department of Transportation, said the analysis would not delay the project.
Policy Watch reported earlier this year that under the state Department of Transportation’s preferred route, construction of North Chatham Park Way would consume 32 acres — eight of them on neighbors’ land. It would clear-cut sections of forest, veer as close as 20 feet to private homes, and sequester three neighbors whose houses would be on the other side of the road.
The original route traveled through as yet-undeveloped land owned by Chatham Park.
“I’m just really concerned about this,” Commissioner Jay Farrell told DOT and the engineering firm Kimley-Horn at a public meeting. “I’m really pushing for you to put it back on Chatham Park property.”
While the parkway could improve the connection between north and south Pittsboro, according to state documents, its primary purpose is to benefit the transportation needs of residents and businesses within the 7,000-acre mega-development, Chatham Park.
The controversy, though, is about more than a road. How the state and Chatham Park Investors have communicated – or failed to communicate – with North Woods residents could be a bellwether for the southern extension of the parkway, an area with several established neighborhoods.
Documents obtained by North Woods residents under the Public Records Act and shared with Policy Watch show that over the past six years, DOT and Kimley-Horn – which also represents Chatham Park Investors on the project – have nudged the route away from the proposed development and toward — and eventually inside — the neighborhood.
DOT and Kimley-Horn maintain that they were only adhering to a route laid out in town documents, starting as early as 2011. But that early document was only “conceptual,” commissioners said last week, and provided no defined route.
A Chatham Park Master Plan approved by the town in 2015 was the first indication that the road could cross into North Woods. Patrick Norman, a DOT engineer, told commissioners that “it would have been irresponsible to propose an alignment not in the plan.”
But the DOT and Kimley-Horn based that route not only on the 2015 document but also on a 2017 “Small Area” plan for Chatham Park that had never been voted on by the Board of Commissioners.
“No one told them to build based on an unapproved road alignment,” Mark Pavao, a North Woods resident for 24 years, told Policy Watch.
Nor did the state inform North Woods neighbors of the precise parkway route until January of this year. According to a water quality application submitted to the U.S. Corps of Army Engineers in September of 2020, there had been no public engagement about the proposed route.
DOT spokesman Aaron Moody said there was public outreach regarding a feasibility study in 2018, when the agency mailed North Woods property owners a notice informing them of upcoming work. Once the feasibility study was complete, Moody said, it was shared with North Woods neighbors “upon their request.”
Arguably, though, a feasibility study is not the same as a defined route. And even though the park way is ostensibly to help with traffic flow through and around Pittsboro, as well as within Chatham Park, a public hearing on the feasibility study could have been beneficial.
After a January public meeting, Kimley-Horn and DOT considered yet another route, but it would have crossed an additional 1,100 linear feet of stream and have required other construction and drainage improvements, and was rejected.
With the neighbors and DOT at an impasse, Town Commissioner Michael Fiocco last week suggested DOT and Kimley-Horn examine the feasibility of yet another possibility – Alternative 8 – the so-called “horseshoe” route.
The route does place the parkway closer to the Haw River, underscoring the difficulty of shoehorning a road into such an environmentally sensitive area. It also would require a wider curve to avoid North Woods, but if the engineering checks out, it could solve the problem for neighbors.
Fiocco’s recommendation, agreed to by the entire Board of Commissioners, perturbed Kimley-Horn. Teresa Gresham, a transportation engineer with the firm, warned that such a reworking would undo a “decade of planning and collaboration with the town of Pittsboro and Chatham County.”
She warned that using the “horseshoe route” for the parkway would “require substantial cost and schedule delays that also affect residents and businesses, some of which have begun to commit to moving into Chatham Park.”
Pavao was unsympathetic to those concerns. “Why should potential future residents have more standing to NCDOT than residents in an established neighborhood dating back to the 1980s?” he later wrote to town commissioners.
Commissioner John Bonitz also was unfazed by Kimley-Horn’s comments. “Perhaps the master plan, perhaps some other substantial documents need to be revised,” he said at the meeting. “I’m OK with that.”
He noted that Pittsboro had been on the losing end of an about-face by Chatham Park Investors. For more than two years, the Town of Pittsboro and Chatham Park Investors had negotiated with third parties about doing extensive work to send wastewater from the development to Sanford he said.
“And then quite to our surprise, Chatham Park investors came up with their own sewer treatment plant proposal,” Bonitz said. “That change of plans created a huge amount of work, expense and delay for the town of Pittsboro. Many town priorities were delayed due to that distraction.”
Gina Cox and her husband live on Country Routt Brown Road. If built as currently proposed, Chatham North Park Way “would literally sit 20 feet from the side of our home,” and could require the family to reroute its septic system, she told commissioners. “The reason my husband bought this land, first of all, was so that we could be secluded and kind of escape the world.
“The road should go back onto Chatham Park property. We feel like this road is really for them anyway, and we don’t feel like we should be inconvenienced to convenience them.”
If NCDOT were to receive a formal request from the town asking for a study of a route to the east on the Chatham Park property, it would take roughly 90 days to survey the land for environmental features and determine how the road would pass through this area and tie into the Alternative 6 on either end of the proposed revision.
This story has been corrected to say that the project has not been delayed.