Grassroots victory in Chatham | News Feature | Indy Week
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Grassroots victory in Chatham 

A grassroots effort in Chatham County to bring voices for controlled growth back to the table succeeded in putting two new members on the Board of Commissioners and apparently rejecting an ambitious plan to run water lines to a largely undeveloped area in the northcentral part of the county.

Citizen activist Mike Cross won the District 2 seat by a margin of almost 1,400 votes, and voters in a proposed northern water district narrowly defeated the $9 million water bond question.

The water bond was before the voters for the second time this fall after its July 20 primary defeat was overturned by balloting problems. Tuesday, it was failing by 32 votes, 1,554 voting no and 1,522 voting yes with provisional ballots to count.

Results include complete but unofficial returns as of early Wednesday morning; they reflect voters' decisions in all 24 precincts, absentees and early voting, but not provisional ballots, to be counted next week.

Elections Director Dawn Stumpf estimates there are between 500 and 1,000 provisional ballots. Those tallies could affect the water bond outcome but aren't likely to reverse Cross' win, where he garnered 53 percent of the vote, with 12,883 votes to Republican Andy Wilkie's 11,489.

The Chatham Coalition, an umbrella PAC of several countywide citizens' groups, backed Cross and District 1 Democrat Patrick Barnes, who won his July 20 primary race and was unopposed this week. Both won four-year terms on the five-member commission, whose other three members are up for election in 2006.

"The response was decisive: Chatham's people want smart growth, not rooftops and waste dumps," the group's Chairman Jeffrey Starkweather said Tuesday.

The coalition and several of its member groups organized in the last 18 months after the 2002 election put a pro-growth majority in charge, quickening the pace of development in the mostly rural county. Outraged by the largely unchecked residential and commercial building proposals winning approval, citizens rallied around issues such as land-use planning, water quality and environmental protection.

After Barnes, founder of a group called Chatham United, won the District 1 primary in July, and Cross, co-founder of the Southeast Chatham Citizens Advisory Committee, won a decisive 51 percent of the vote in a three-way race in his primary, the two candidates and their supporters were targeted by a backlash campaign that kicked into high gear as Election Day approached. On Oct. 20, two Democratic candidates who'd lost to Barnes and Cross in the primaries joined a list of Democrats in a large newspaper ad supporting Wilkie, a former Republican who had run unsuccessfully twice before.

The same day, a group calling itself "The Committee to Defend Chatham County Heritage" took out a full-page ad saying the Chatham Coalition is made up of newcomers whose "real agenda" is to "oppose economic growth" and take away long-time residents' property rights.

"This win for Mike Cross shows that there is countywide support for smart growth and real economic development," said Sally Kost, a coalition leader. "Citizens didn't fall for this attempt to divide us. The people have spoken, and now it's up to the rest of the Board of Commissioners to listen to our voices."

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