NCDOT silent on development, residents not | Chatham County | Indy Week
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NCDOT silent on development, residents not 

The musty smell of fertilizer hangs in the air at Pope's Tru Value Hardware in Cole Park Plaza, where shelves are packed with everything from sledgehammers to saws to fuses. For more than 20 years, Tommy Pope has owned this Chatham County store, which has withstood being sandwiched between two Lowe's, one eight miles north, the other 11 miles south. Here, locals still buy stamps at the post office that operates a small counter in back, not far from the key-grinder and the hedge clippers.

"We don't sell the same things," says Pope. "You couldn't build a house here, but we have personalized service that you can't get at a larger store. You can find things quicker."

This local flavor could sour, many area residents say, if Chatham County Commissioners approve a proposed 63-acre development, County Line Plaza, one mile north of Pope's on the Orange-Chatham line. According to the development application filed by Lee-Moore Oil, a Sanford-based company, the plan would develop 29 acres into a undisclosed 140,800-square-foot, big-box home improvement store, a gas station with 20 pumps, a fast-food joint, a sit-down restaurant, a bank and other retail outlets at the corner of U.S. 15-501 and Smith Level Road. The rest of the acreage would be used for a drip waste disposal system and stormwater management.

While Chatham County officials may be hooked by the lure of an estimated $1 million in additional annual sales and property taxes, residents have voiced their concerns over the development's potential erosion of community character. But Orange County officials, who have negligible input on the project (although a driveway crosses into their jurisdiction), are worried about a more overarching issue: What happens in northeast Chatham County doesn't stay in northeast Chatham County. Traffic congestion and air pollution have no respect for political borders. And a lack of communication between Orange and Chatham officials, regional transportation planners and the N.C. Department of Transportation could result in hundreds of additional cars that could impact the quality of life on both sides of the county line--and beyond.

Within a thicket of forest, a portion of the property has been zoned for business since 1974. Lee-Moore Oil has owned it for more than 20 years, but only since 2002 has the company pursued this development for the site, says president Kirk Bradley.

"This fight is about the character of Chatham County," says Chatham County activist Mark Barroso. "The people here feel very strongly about not living in South Durham or North Raleigh. There are better ways to build a community, and it's not cookie-cutter suburban America."

But Bradley points out that the development will have 33 percent impervious cover--pavement--which is less than the county's allowable 36 percent. In addition, nearly 34 acres will be preserved.

"There's a place to preserve and a place for economic development," says Bradley, a former member of the Triangle Land Conservancy's board of directors. "I'm an advocate for green infrastructure."

Barroso remains unswayed. "We're not fighting for the trees; we're fighting for a community."

Chatham County Commissioner Patrick Barnes doesn't support the application primarily because of transportation issues. "My biggest objections are that 15-501 isn't adequately planned for. It's already too full."

Barnes also confirms activists' suspicions that developers in general are racing to secure commissioners' approval for their projects before a new commission, which is expected to be more circumspect about growth, takes office in December.

"The time has come to develop the site," says Bradley. "The application speaks for itself."

Perhaps not. The developer's traffic impact analysis, conducted by Ramey Kemp & Associates, is flawed, according to Mark Ahrendsen of the Durham-Chapel Hill-Carrboro Metropolitan Planning Organization. The MPO is charged with forming long-range transportation plans and policies in the region, albeit it is frequently hamstrung by a lack of responsiveness from the state transportation department.

In August 2005, Ahrendsen sent a letter to Tim Johnson, NCDOT Engineer for Division 8, which oversees Chatham County, asking him to withhold approval of the driveway permit. Ahrendsen emphasized that long-range plans, developed with input from Chatham County planners, forecast nine employees in the area of the proposed development over the next 25 years; however, the proposed land use would generate 650 employees. Ahrendsen also took issue with air-quality predictions and a projected traffic impact from the nearby Briar Chapel mega-subdivision.

A year later, state officials still have not responded.

Ahrendsen says that while the MPO communicates well with NCDOT division offices in Orange and Durham counties, it doesn't have a well-established relationship with the District 8 office in Chatham. "In all candor, we don't deal with them as much," he says.

Lisa Crawley, NCDOT spokesperson, says the department has yet to receive an application from Lee-Moore and thus hasn't reviewed it. However, Bradley says he's been working with NCDOT for two years on placement of the driveway.

Bradley declined to comment on air quality and transportation issues.

Orange County Commissioner Barry Jacobs adds that no mechanism exists to discuss projects that cross jurisdictions. Jacobs says he met with Chatham County Commissioners Bunkey Morgan and Tommy Emerson earlier this year, where "we said we'd like an opportunity to make friendly comments and they were receptive." Yet, there has been little or no dialogue between commissions since. "No one wants to tell someone else how to govern and there is no outside entity to compel it."

As for NCDOT, "they seem genuinely in the dark," Jacobs says.

Pope's grandfather started the store in Harnett County in the 1930s, although Pope says he has already seen business drop slightly due to competition from the big box stores. "I'm sure it [the new development] will affect us some," he says. "It does concern me, the more businesses that open, unless the population increases quite a bit. I'm not sure there's anything I could do. We know the customers and they know us."

The Chatham County Commissioners will hold a public hearing on Monday, Sept. 18 at 6 p.m. at the Pittsboro Courthouse.

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