Imagine there's a man who's lived in your community 30 years and has been a plumber, farmer, teacher, father, husband and homebuilder. He owns a company that advertises and does "ecologically friendly land development specializing in green building and energy-efficient homes." He's already developed three rural subdivisions. Now imagine that instead of building out in the country, he wants to build—in town—23 single-family homes for $110,000 to $170,000, clustered on a 50-acre parcel, next to a town park and walking distance from local schools and a slowly revitalizing downtown.
Envision one more thing: Two years ago, this man borrowed $200,000 to buy the land, got a permit to build and spent $60,000 on site engineering, but when he was finally ready to break ground late last year, the Town Planning Department told him his permit had expired. Then the Town Board of Commissioners voted 4-1 not to extend it. Right on the heels of denying his permit extension, that same board overturned its own zoning rules allowing cluster subdivisions; so even if the man wins his upcoming court battle in April, neither he nor anyone else can now build more compact, efficient, walkable subdivisions of which his would have been the first.
If you can imagine that, you'll know Harvey Harman's recent saga in trying to build the sustainable Village Neighborhoods of Bray Creek in Siler City in western Chatham County. Last Saturday, in an old brick storefront on the almost abandoned but reawakening main street of the tiny farming crossroads of Bonlee, just south of Siler City, Harman and his allies held a fundraiser to collect money for legal fees to fight the town's decision. The benefit was in keeping with Harman's down-home style, featuring a locally barbecued pig from a neighboring farm, four kinds of homemade cake and cornbread, and a silent auction with everything from hand-knit scarves to microdermabrasion treatments.
Harman, a soft-spoken, friendly but determined guy originally from Pennsylvania, has, along with his wife, Nancy, and three sons, been walking the sustainability talk long before most of us even spoke the word. His farm was first in the area to promote community supported agriculture. He teaches organic farming at Central Carolina Community College, and most recently, he's been building affordable, energy-efficient, ecologically sound housing with small, local building companies.
So who wouldn't trust this guy and why did the town turn him down? Siler City is a town in transition and change always brings some fear. Fifteen years ago, its Hispanic population was less than 4 percent; now it's close to 40 percent. Little tiendas, taquieras and other buildings with green, white and red paint jobs dot the downtown. Textile mills are all but gone; now the industrial jobs are in poultry slaughterhouses. So some people at the benefit speculated it was the fear that more Mexicans would move in to the new subdivision.
A neuropolarity therapist who had just moved to Siler City from Maryland told me Harman's business partner had been an outspoken opponent of a massive new rock quarry scheduled to open just outside town. Perhaps that opposition ruffled the town's feathers. The therapist used the term "blacklisted." Still others wondered if his clustered subdivision—with smaller lots, less pavement, innovative energy-efficient construction, use of grass drainage swales instead of curbs and gutters, and cisterns to catch stormwater for irrigation and toilet flushing—was some kind of vague threat just because of its newness. All of Harman's work meets or exceeds all building codes. In 2005 the state of North Carolina gave Harman and N.C. State University a $25,000 grant to study the effectiveness of his subdivision's design in reducing stormwater runoff, now North Carolina's main source of water pollution.
As Harman prepares for his court case on April 5, you can find out more from him at www.earthrenewalshelter.com or (919) 837-5805. Depending on the outcome, he may ask the town to change their Web site's home page that now begins, "A gracious welcome awaits you in Siler City—a community known for its friendly people, prosperous business environment and easy living."
Corrections (Feb. 14, 2007): The Siler City Town Board changed its ordinance after developer Harvey Harman's project was approved, more than two years ago. Also, Harman has lived in Chatham County for 16 years, not 30, and borrowed $288,000 to buy the land.