A couple years back, a firing range called 2A Range opened up about two hundred yards from the Goathouse Refuge, an animal sanctuary in rural Chatham County. Controversy ensued. The 2A Range rebutted the noise and safety complaints voiced by the Goathouse Refuge, arguing that no zoning restrictions prevented it from conducting its business. This was true: roughly half of Chatham County is completely unzoned, meaning there are few limits to what a property owner can do with his or her land. In that part of Chatham County—six miles northwest of Pittsboro, about sixteen miles southwest of Chapel Hill—2A Range could have set up shop next to a playground, and there's nothing anybody could have done about it.
In the end, the firing range closed. It didn't buckle under the pressure of neighborly outrage but rather ran afoul of the county's environmental quality department. But the conflict illustrates why Chatham County Commissioner Diana Hales and others believe countywide zoning is an urgent priority.
"The longer we put it off, the more we put ourselves at risk," Hales says.
It wasn't such a pressing issue in the old days. Chatham County is historically rural, home to farming communities. But development pressure from Wake County and Orange County is rapidly changing the landscape. Subdivisions continue to be erected in the eastern and northern parts of the county. There is also the matter of Chatham Park, a massive, eight-thousand-acre development that, in the next thirty years, is expected to add twenty-two thousand homes and increase the population of quaint little Pittsboro by a factor of ten, or twelve, or maybe even fifteen.
Much of the eastern half of Chatham is zoned. But when you venture west—toward where this population growth will inevitably spill—you're more likely to find yourself in unzoned territory. And a lot of folks out there—like Mark Stinson, who lives near Siler City—don't cotton to the government coming in and proposing changes to the way things have been for hundreds of years.
"They're trying to turn this into a middle- to upper-end bedroom community," Stinson says. "These are areas of zero to negative growth, full of family farms. There's no need to zone us out here."
Stinson and other opponents of countywide zoning were well represented at a commissioners' meeting in early June. The room was packed so tight that many citizens who sought to offer comments were unable to get in. But their voices were heard: "We like it here," a woman named Vicky Russell said. "If you don't like it, leave." Big roars from the crowd.
Paul White called for a referendum on the matter. "I believe my property is sacred," White said. "After I retire, I'd like to start a business on my property, and I'm concerned about the red tape I'll have to go through to establish my business. ... Why can't we let the people of Chatham decide? If you're not afraid of the outcome, it shouldn't be a problem." More cheers.
Others have been more measured in their critiques. Bruce Hively lives on ten acres of unzoned land off Highway 902 between Pittsboro and Siler City. "I know zoning's coming," Hively says. "I just don't agree with how they're not doing it in an orderly manner. They're rolling out the zoning before they finish the twenty-five-year comprehensive land-use plan. That's bass-ackwards, you ask me."
The comprehensive land-use plan is an effort, currently underway, to outline a vision for what Chatham County should look like in the future, given the fact that it's one of the fastest-growing counties in the state. It's not legally binding, more of a guide for where development should be steered, where infrastructure should be put in. In theory, zoning would codify that plan into law. But in Chatham, they're doing it the other way around.
There is also, as White alluded to, concern about business in the unzoned areas. The way the proposed zoning would work is, essentially, if you're currently running a business on your property in unzoned Chatham County, you'd be grandfathered in. You'd also be allowed to expand that business should you want to. But after the zoning locks in, you wouldn't be able to change the nature of your business. You couldn't turn your asphalt company into a quarry, at least without getting it cleared by the county through the usual process of getting neighbors and the planning commission to sign off. (Agriculture and related businesses are exempted from the proposed zoning.)
"I'm a woodworker and a small-engine mechanic," Hively says. "Maybe I want to do something different in a few years. It troubles me that I wouldn't be able to do that on my own property."
That's a small price to pay for a plan that would, in many ways, protect rural Chatham from encroaching development and industry, says George Lucier, who chairs the county's planning commission. Of the eight counties that border Chatham, he points out, all but Alamance are fully zoned—and even Alamance requires asphalt and mining operations to go through a stringent process.
"We've had eight permit applications for quarries in the last year," Lucier says. "It puts us in a vulnerable position, because as it is, the county has no say on whether we want that. We're at risk—and I think you're already seeing it happen—of becoming a dumping place for businesses that other counties don't want.
"You don't want to wait until the huge problems arrive to deal with them," Lucier adds. "You want to get ahead of the curve."
For many out west, though, Lucier's argument is unconvincing. A movement is afoot to unseat commissioner Karen Howard, who has pushed for countywide zoning and is up for reelection in November. Mike Dasher, also a Democrat in favor of the zoning, defeated an incumbent in the primary this spring and was poised to run unopposed in the fall. But now Peyton Holland is running against him, positioned on the other side of the zoning issue.
"It's pretty much an even mix of Democrats, Republicans, and independents that are going after Howard and trying to stop Dasher from being elected," Stinson says. He calls Howard a "rogue" commissioner and says he's waiting to hear back from legal advisors about a "potential lawsuit" against the commission over the zoning.
The Chatham County planning commission will convene on July 12 to formulate recommendations it will make to the board of commissioners on the zoning question. It should be an interesting meeting.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Free Range"