Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled the name of Harold Hayden. The News + Record apologizes for this error.
PITTSBORO — Harold Hayden has seen the impact of Chatham County’s growth firsthand.
His once-quiet property just north of Pea Ridge Road is buzzing with construction workers. The trees across the street that he once saw from his window have been replaced by bulldozers and leveling equipment.
“It’s literally in my front yard,” Hayden said. “This is going to impact my quality of life.”
Hayden, who has lived north of Pea Ridge Road for more than 25 years, is one of the few people who have already felt the burden of the construction from N.C. Dept. of Transportation in preparation for VinFast, which plans a massive electric vehicle manufacturing plant nearby. He said he’s already seen increased traffic in front of his property and expects to see much more in the near future as work in and around Triangle Innovation Point — the former Moncure Megasite — ramps up.
“It’s all so unknown,” Hayden said. “Well-intentioned folks have given us educated guesses of what they expect to happen, but it’s not necessarily what’s really going to happen … I’m very skeptical that once all the growth has happened, there will be a dramatic effect on my property.”
Last Tuesday, NCDOT held an open house meeting at the Chatham County Agriculture & Conference Center where residents saw maps of the planned construction for roads leading to the sites of the facilities for recently-announced Chatham industries: VinFast and FedEx.
More than 250 local residents attended the meeting. Some, like Hayden, are in the direct path of construction for NCDOT. They see the project as deeply concerning and significantly disruptive to their lives; NCDOT says the expanded highway interchanges along U.S. 1, New Elam Church Road and Pea Ridge Road are necessary to facilitate access to the major industrial sites.
All told, NCDOT expects it will need to displace 27 homes, five businesses and relocate Merry Oaks Baptist Church for construction; the construction and related work is necessary to reroute roadways for the 2,150-acre Triangle Innovation Point site — the future location of VinFast and FedEx.
To ease access to the planned VinFast electric vehicle plant NCDOT wants to replace Exit 84 from U.S. 1 with a new interchange at New Elam Church Road, which would be relocated and extended over Old U.S. 1 into the site.
Kay Hinsley lives in the Merry Oaks community, just off Old U.S. 1. She says she’s directly impacted by the construction. Her property is at the point where the road resurfacing and widening is slated to start, just off U.S. 1’s Exit 84.
“This is definitely going to be an inconvenience,” Hinsley said. “It’s going to take part of my property to widen that road. It also impacts a church I went to for most of my life and I don’t think that’s right. I cannot believe they could not accommodate the needs of the local residents.”
Hinsley believes Exit 84 serves a critical role in the community because of the church and the residents who live there. She said she’s frustrated that the current maps didn’t receive community input from those affected by the development and construction.
“These are families with generational land,” Hinsley said. “We’ve seen this before with the U.S. 1 Bypass, which split my family farm in half. Then again with the Jordan Lake Dam, which unsettled residents. Now, this manufacturer is coming in.”
Hinsley said she and her neighbors were shocked when they saw the proposed maps because nobody expected this level of interruption to the land to happen this fast. She first saw the maps just two weeks prior to the meeting, when the first public announcement of the input session was released.
The construction will take place in two phases. The first phase includes widening and resurfacing existing routes around the site including Christian Chapel Church Road, Pea Ridge Road, and Old U.S. 1.; it’s expected to be complete by the summer of next year.
The first phase also includes widening New Elam Church Road from two lanes to a four-lane divided road from the VinFast site to U.S. 1. That development will start in early 2023 and finish in spring 2024. The final part of the road widening, which includes building access roads to U.S. 1, is expected to be completed by the winter of 2025.
Phase two of the road construction by NCDOT, which includes improvements to the new access road from the VinFast site to U.S. 1 on Pea Ridge Road, does not have a definitive timeline right now; construction is tied to the creation of 3,875 jobs by VinFast. Chatham County and the state offered VinFast $1.2 billion in tax incentives, including $250 million for road improvements near the site.
“We want folks to see the plans as they are and make comments if they have any,” said Harris Kay, NCDOT communications official. “A lot of people just want to understand this complex process and we get that. People want to know when they’ll start to see the changes and what to do if they see the development will impact them directly.”
Kay said if people are concerned about the project they should further engage with the public process because construction plans are still incomplete. That means signing up for NCDOT mailing lists and submitting feedback through public forums or online at www.publicinput.com/Chatham-TIP-Road-Improvements.
NCDOT accepts comments throughout all phases of project development. Comments on this phase of project development are requested by Sept. 1.
After last week’s input sessions, NCDOT says it will read through feedback, make necessary changes and evaluate how the project is being received by the public. After that process, Kay said if properties are still impacted then landowners will be directed to the NCDOT Right of Way Unit for land acquisition negotiations.
NCDOT said the existing highway system can’t accommodate VinFast’s needs in order to fulfill its promise of 7,500 jobs by 2027, which is why these roadway improvements need to be made. Colin Mellor, environmental policy official with NCDOT, said VinFast’s timeline is aggressive and fast-paced, but NCDOT is working to accommodate it. The Vietnamese EV manufacturer has promised vehicles off the factory lines as soon as July 2024, but Mellor said it should be clear that timelines are tentative.
“Since the project was announced in March, we’ve hit the ground running,” Mellor said. “We believe that this is a reasonable timeframe but these things do take time. We aren’t going to cut corners and will be sure to continue dotting all of our i’s and crossing all of our t’s”
Mellor said the benefits of the VinFast site won’t be realized for several years, once the plant is fully operational. That’s why he believes it is important to ensure all community voices are heard. He said while he can’t guarantee anything, the NCDOT does take everyone’s feedback into account and if there is enough commonality in the feedback, it will refine its road designs. After the meeting, he said comments will be analyzed in a spreadsheet and grouped for common concerns.
“We work to avoid right of way concerns as much as possible,” Mellor said. “Unfortunately, it’s often impossible to eliminate all of them. We want the input and we will address the concerns as best we can.”
‘Going to affect everybody’
Sheila Lassiter’s family has lived in Moncure for three generations, and she said her neighbors have similar stories. She came to the meeting because she fears NCDOT and VinFast will disrupt the character of her community.
“We are used to Moncure being a small town where everybody knows everybody,” Lassiter said. “This place is going to be major and it’s really unclear how it’s going to affect everybody around me.”
While the site plans don’t cross directly through Lassiter’s property, she believes her proximity to the facility will change her neighborhood. She believes small businesses and local communities in Moncure will suffer the most from this development, which she said isn’t fair.
“People in Moncure have all been here forever,” Lassiter said. “They don’t deserve to have their properties taken or their small businesses taken just because a bigger business wants to come in. That shouldn’t have to happen.”
Lassiter said she understands it’s difficult for Moncure to have the benefits of development while preserving the neighborhood, but that doesn’t mean NCDOT and VinFast shouldn’t try. She and many of her neighbors are scared right now because so much of the future remains up in the air.
“How can you ask for support from the community if you’re coming in and taking from the community?” she said. “People shouldn’t have to lose their place and their livelihood just so we can gain something they say is a bigger and better opportunity.”