Pittsboro commissioners consider funding contribution project for Chatham Park Way

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PITTSBORO — Commissioners spent an hour and a half debating the approval of a local government funding contribution project with Chatham Park Investors during Monday night’s board meeting. It was a conversation that, at times, bordered on tensity and brought up questions about the financing of development in Pittsboro.

Eric Vernon, an attorney representing Chatham Park Investors, presented the proposed bonus allocation agreement, which focuses on Chatham Park Way, a state road that serves the transportation needs of residents and businesses in the over-7,000-acre development.

The N.C. Dept. of Transportation’s State Transportation Improvement Program (STIP) allows for the acceleration of state roads upon the payment of a local contribution, and the reimbursement of a portion of local contributions that cut road construction costs. According to the resolution, NCDOT identified in the STIP the funding for and scheduling of construction for a new two-lane portion of Chatham Park Way spanning more than 2 miles.

Under the proposed bonus allocation agreement, Chatham Park Investors (CPI) would pay $9 million on behalf of the town as the “local contribution.” The Town of Pittsboro is being asked to serve as a conduit for the funds paid to the NCDOT and to convey the right of way for the portion of the road on behalf of CPI. The value of the right of way would qualify as a bonus allocation of $4.5 million, which has to be spent within five years and would allow CPI to draw on a credit for the construction of additional roads that belong to Chatham Park.

In his presentation, Vernon said the project has been on the town’s radar for a long time, referencing a 2018 letter that the Town of Pittsboro sent to Triangle J Council of Governments and Triangle Area Rural Planning Organization expressing support for the bonus allocation program.

“As I’ve experienced in communities that I’ve represented, as a general rule, growth exceeds the ability of a local government to provide for transportation infrastructure,” Vernon said to commissioners. “And this is one way to accomplish the goals of supporting the new development of Chatham Park Investors, while at the same time providing benefits to the citizens of the town of Pittsboro in the form of reduced pressure on your existing transportation system.”

However, the mayor and several commissioners voiced discomfort with the proposed agreement and allocating NCDOT bonus funds, and said they would like more time to understand the specifications in the agreement.

Specifically, commissioners took issue that two roads, Suttles Road and Eubanks Road, were listed in the proposed agreement as potential projects that could be addressed with the bonus funds, instead pointing to concerns with the current infrastructure of and a need for a road widening on N.C. Hwy 87. Mayor Cindy Perry also referenced the establishment of the VinFast megasite in the southeastern portion of Chatham, and ensuing truck and construction traffic.

“In his interview, our last manager, Chris Kennedy said to us, ‘Development should pay for itself,’” Commissioner John Bonitz said. “And I believe that, and I believe that this is kind of turning that on its head, that truism.”

“I believe that your company needs this road,” Bonitz continued. “I believe that the Town of Pittsboro needs you to complete this road, and because of our entwined destinies, I am concerned about your success, but I am even more concerned about the profound needs and rotting infrastructure in the rest of the town.”

Vernon said the inclusion of the two roads in the proposed agreement were provided as examples and were a reflection of the evolution of the Chatham Park development. He said they could be taken out of the agreement. But, he emphasized, any roads included would be owned by Chatham Park, would benefit town residents and would have to be STIP-eligible to receive the bonus allocation.

“I would suggest that Chatham Park is ready to cooperate with the town anyway it can,” Vernon said, in response to a comment made by Perry earlier in the meeting regarding what she perceived as competing infrastructure projects. “...We would never see ourselves as being in competition with the town or its other interests.”

Commissioner Kyle Shipp also stated his support for the removal of the reference to the two specific roads in the agreement, as well as making more clear in the agreement that any additional roads built with the bonus allocation would be controlled by Chatham Park, which Vernon agreed to.

“The way I look at this is a developer has agreed to give the town $9 million to build roads in the Town of Pittsboro and their request is that the $4.5 million rebate that comes back is used for roads in the PDD or controlled by Chatham Park,” Shipp said. “It’s 100% our decision to make, what happens with that money…but we don’t have that money and we don’t have any way to compel to give that money so it’s a negotiation of what happens with that.”

Ultimately, commissioners decided to revisit the proposed agreement at the next board meeting on Dec. 12, when CPI would have made the changes requested by board members.

Commissioners also approved the Downtown Pittsboro Work Plan for the 2023 fiscal year. The plan, which aims to synthesize goals and a vision for downtown, is the product of a series of efforts since July and collaborations between the Downtown Advisory Board, the North Carolina Main Street Program, the Town of Pittsboro and community members.

In July, Pittsboro commissioners created the Downtown Advisory Board. Shortly after, the board hosted a “Community Vision Forum,” disseminated a community survey and participated in several visioning workshops. Feedback from the community input process directly shaped the work plan, which Downtown Development Director Theresa Thompson presented an overview of. A draft version of the plan is available at nc-pittsboro.civicplus.com/AgendaCenter/ViewFile/Item/315?fileID=2937.

The survey, which received 353 responses, saw the top priorities for downtown revitalization as: attracting new businesses, more places to shop, more downtown events, more places to sit and socialize and more parking.

A key part of the Downtown Advisory Board’s strategic planning process was also developing a vision statement, which aims to serve as an aspirational description of the community and should establish economic development goals.

The statement, which Thompson said should be revisited annually and updated every two to five years, is included in the work plan as follows: “Encircled by an eclectic and innovative economy and supportive of its rich agrocentric heritage, Downtown Pittsboro is a vibrant arts and cultural destination that inspires visitors and brings pride to the community. With its own unique character, Downtown Pittsboro is an inclusive and welcoming place for everyone.”

The next steps would include extending the 2014 Downtown Vision Plan, by creating a more detailed strategic plan that would go hand in hand with the Land Use Plan, which is currently being updated.

Other business

• During his manager’s update, Interim Town Manager Hazen Blodgett briefed commissioners on progress with addressing water and sewer capacity in Pittsboro. Blodgett said he met with staff from Sanford and Chatham Park last week to discuss the Sanford-Pittsboro merger to outline individual needs from each municipality.

The town manager also said staff plans to start looking for an attorney to assist in navigating the merger, and on Dec. 13, the board will hear from Freese and Nichols to discuss the merger and rates study conducted by the engineering firm. Blodgett said the presentation from Freese and Nichols will be helpful in considering how to close the gap between costs of the merger and the revolving loan fund and a grant the town has applied for.

“If I were a board member, what I would be thinking about is right now we only have 21,000 customers, like how do you pay for these very expensive infrastructure costs?” he said. “But the way to look at this, look at it as a 20 and 30 year horizon, and there’s going to be 22,000 to 25,000 more residential units in our community, so you can do a lot of things with that kind of customer base.”

• The mayor began Monday’s meeting by honoring the retirement of Carroll Edwin Swain Jr. from the Pittsboro Police Department. The mayor, along with the board, also recognized the life of Kenzie Wrenn Scoggins, 5, who was diagnosed with an aggressive brain tumor last year and passed away in September. The board resolved to recognize Dec. 17 as “Bushel & A Peck Day” in honor of Scoggins as a day of remembrance and to raise awareness of Childhood Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma.

• The board also approved $4,000 from their special events line to fund a new Pittsboro Citizens Academy (or “PBO 101”), an eight-week program for around 15-25 people geared at helping residents become more civically engaged and have a better understanding of local government proceedings.

The board is holding a special meeting in closed session Wednesday at 2:30 p.m. as commissioners conduct interviews with three candidates for the permanent town manager. The board will next meet at 7 p.m. on Monday, Dec. 12, at the Chatham County Agriculture & Conference Center.

Reporter Maydha Devarajan can be reached at mdevarajan@chathamnr.com and on Twitter @maydhadevarajan.

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