501 Landing development rezoning approved, controversially, over some community objection

Posted 2/21/20

PITTSBORO — The decision did not come easy. The Chatham County Board of Commissioners debated the merits of the change for the better part of an hour on Monday.

And in the end, it was a split …

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501 Landing development rezoning approved, controversially, over some community objection

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PITTSBORO — The decision did not come easy. The Chatham County Board of Commissioners debated the merits of the change for the better part of an hour on Monday.

And in the end, it was a split vote that did not fall along party lines.

A 5-acre parcel of land on U.S. Highway 15-501 in front of the Polk’s Landing neighborhood was approved for rezoning from residential to Neighborhood Business, making way for a new 14,400 square-foot mixed use pair of buildings slated to feature retail, offices and restaurants.

Commissioner Chairman Karen Howard and Vice Chairman Diana Hales voted against the move, saying the development would possibly lead to a continuance of “strip malls” along the highway corridor, while Commissioners Jim Crawford, Mike Dasher and Andy Wilkie voted in favor, arguing the rezoning was consistent with the county’s Comprehensive Plan.

It was the end of a several-month-long process that, as Dasher said, didn’t have a win-win conclusion.

“These are difficult decisions for all of us,” he said.

The origins of the project

Working under the name “Pitt Hill X,” the applicant submitted the plan for the development and an application for a zoning change to the Chatham County Planning Department on Sept. 30, 2019. Pittsboro Town Commissioner Michael Fiocco represented the development group, which includes News + Record co-owner Chris Ehrenfeld.

When the item was first presented to the commissioners during a legislative public hearing on Nov. 18, several community members came out in opposition to the rezoning. Those comments, along with follow-up emails and letters to the county government, cited concerns about too much development in a residential area.

“Many Polks Landing residents have lived in our neighborhood for decades and have experienced increasing pressure from growth in recent years,” wrote Chris Thommerdahl. “As a result, we are deeply concerned that rezoning this parcel would set a precedent and ‘pave the way’ for the other four narrow lots leading up to Polks Landing Rd and Polks Village to be converted to similar ‘strip’ commercial development.”

Adjacent property owner Carolina Hock wrote, “The people who decided to live in this beautiful neighborhood felt attracted to living surrounded by trees and wildlife. With the approval of this development, a considered number of trees will have to be cut down in order to build the septic tank and the buildings. We want our quiet neighborhood to stay residential, we don’t want the noise and pollution from 15-501 (trees are a natural barrier for noise and pollution), we enjoy the trees and the wildlife that live there.”

But citing the Chatham County Comprehensive Plan — which labeled that intersection of 15-501 and Lystra Road as a “Community Center node” designed as “retail hubs along key roadway corridors” — the county planning department recommended approval of the use. Notes from the department said existing uses in that node, including a Harris Teeter grocery store and Marco’s Pizza restaurant, make the intersection “the location adopted by the Commissioners as an area for additional non-residential growth.”

“In order to keep tax revenue in the county, locating non-residential development in areas identified for growth in Plan Chatham is needed,” the staff report stated. “While many residents travel outside of the county for work these retail establishment provide them additional options to obtain goods and services.”

Additionally, planning staff said, the project was “designed with consideration given to the residential area to the west” — meaning Polks Landing — by moving building and parking areas “as close to the US 15-501 as allowed by the ordinances” and stating that the developer would maintain as many trees as possible in developing the septic field and stormwater pond areas.”

Planning board disagreement

But the Chatham County Planning Board, a group made up by citizens, voted 8-3 against the rezoning request. A summary of the board’s conversation, which Planning Board Chairman George Lucier said took up an hour, stated that the majority of the board echoed the shared community concern’s of over-development. Additionally, it cited the Comprehensive Plan.

“The Land Use Plan states there should be variability and flexibility in Community Centers,” the report stated. “Therefore, not all four corners of community centers should necessarily be filled with high impact commercial activities.”

In the county’s Comprehensive Plan, on page 47, the description of Community Center nodes includes a bullet point saying they were designed to “allow flexibility to provide a variation and mix of centers at quadrant intersections” and that “mix of uses include retail, restaurants, services and office uses.” It does not require a residential area in such intersections.

The Planning Board’s report said the minority of members emphasized that the proposed spot for 501 Landing was within a Community Center node “which should allow retail activities to the full extent.”

“The minority and the applicant also stated that developers and landowners should be able to look at the Land Use Plan and decide where to seek approval for commercial activity,” the report stated. “Those who supported the rezoning also felt that none of the property currently approved for commercial development meets the needs of small local businesses and that the site plan concentrated the most intense aspects of the development close to the highway providing a buffer for neighboring residences and property owners.”

In a response to the Planning Board’s report, the developer, on the letterhead of Durham-based land planning and civil engineering firm Civil Consultants, said it believed 501 Landing “addresses many of the Plan Chatham Comprehensive Plan goals which the Plan identifies as necessary presently.”

“The Plan was adopted roughly two and a half years ago and it speaks to the importance and necessity of implementing the vision,” the response stated. “It is well known there is an imbalance in the tax base of Chatham County which relies primarily on the residential base. Residential building permits continue to be issued as subdivisions are approved at a rapid rate that far exceed the rate of commercial development which only serves to further exacerbate the tax base imbalance.”

Commissioner discussion

Monday’s discussion began in the public comments with four people speaking in opposition to the project. Chatham Economic Development Corporation President Alyssa Byrd followed with comments of support.

““Through the development of the county’s Comprehensive Plan, this area was identified through public input for retail and shopping development,” Byrd said. “This area is particularly attractive because there is a demand for service and a particularly growing population. This plan is consistent with the vision we adopted and I encourage you to approve its rezoning.”

Byrd had the backing of a unanimous resolution from her EDC Board which stated that it “supports the land use, growth management and economic development strategies described in the Plan, and supports the best and highest use of land within the Centers.”

Planning Department Director Jason Sullivan said the proposal was “smaller in scale and scope” than a previously-proposed Publix grocery store that never made it to the commissioners for a vote. Answering a question from Dasher, he said disagreement between planning staff and the Planning Board was not common.

“Usually the planning board and the staff are consistent, but this happens from time to time,” Sullivan said. “I expect for that to happen. If we’re always in lock-step, then there’s probably something wrong. These issues are going to come up when you have a controversial rezoning.”

Lucier then stepped to the microphone to share a bit of the planning board’s perspective, but that conversation was diverted. Dasher and Crawford questioned one of the Planning Board’s reasons for opposition: there’s other land already zoned for Neighborhood Business available.

“It’s not fair to make rules over a case as it comes across the board,” Crawford said. “You’re issuing criteria that have not yet been part of any formal public plan. I’m figuring how this does not match up with the nodes that were in the larger plan. There are other nodes, to be sure, but it’s not our job to pick when and how they get filled up.”

Howard argued that the commissioners are “the single barrier against strip malls” in Chatham County and allowing over-development would be irresponsible, even in northeast Chatham where there is already a lot of development.

“There was concern from the community that northeast Chatham in general would be over-developed,” Howard said. “We (said) we were going to finesse the rules that no part of this county would be sacrificed. They value that sense of place, and we can’t discount northeast Chatham having its own sense of charm. There is some value in systematically and cautiously moving forward with development.”

Hales expressed issues with the scale of the project, citing the planned 99 parking spaces and a cross access easement that would make it easier for development to come alongside 501 Landing. Fiocco, who was present at the meeting along with Ehrenfeld, said the group was willing and even preferred to eliminate the easement.

Ehrenfled spoke at one point and said the area would be anchored by an office of his company, Bold Real Estate, and that the development group has “been in communication with many very interested parties” about the other spots.

“We’ve done everything we can to work with the neighborhood,” Fiocco said. “I think we’ve done a good job protecting a lot of the interests of the area.”

A difference of opinion

The board agreed on one thing: a proper Unified Development Ordinance would make these decisions much easier.

“I don’t know if there are simple things, but I feel like there are small things we could do that would ensure that we are addressing residents’ concerns,” Dasher said. “Absent those things, I have a difficult time saying yes, it’s in an area that we want commercial development, but we haven’t written the rules yet, so just wait.”

Howard agreed, saying that “these kinds of debates and decisions are essential until we have a UDO.”

Hales made a motion to approve a consistency statement, the first step in the process, saying the proposed use was not consistent due to “residential development proximity.” She was joined by Howard in voting “aye,” with Crawford, Dasher and Wilkie, who said nothing during the discussion, against.

Crawford then motioned to both approve a consistency statement saying the project was consistent with Plan Chatham — which, he added, was adopted “at great expense and effort.” The same vote occurred but in reverse. The commissioners then voted similarly to formally approve the rezoning.

Both Dasher and Howard — each of whom are seeking reelection this fall — made final statements summing up their decision.

“I certainly understand the planning board’s position. I understand the chair and the vice chair’s position, and I understand the residents’ concerns on this,” said Dasher, who represents District 2, which is Pittsboro and southeast Chatham. “But I do think personally, when in doubt, I’m going to stick with the land use plan that we’ve adopted. That is how I have justified this vote on that.”

Howard, whose District 1 includes the half of the intersection opposite 501 Landing, said, “I understand and I appreciate the work that each of the members of this board (did). When there is a question of doubt, I am going to err on the side of the community. I regret this time we were not successful, but we will plow on.”

Reporter Zachary Horner can be reached at zhorner@chathamnr.com or on Twitter at @ZachHornerCNR.

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