The Tightrope of Community Planning

In the eight months plus I’ve been sitting on the Chatham County Planning Board, I’ve become increasingly aware of how my decisions directly affect the lives of our citizens. Well, duh, you might say. On the outside it was all sort of abstract; I never knew the details of individual cases nor did I sit eye-to-eye with a co-equal citizen when I’d just voted against their request for a zoning change. The more I know about zoning, conditional use permit procedure and variance the more complex these decisions get for me. I consider myself a fairly liberal guy, and I’m not ashamed to say it. I’m a rural land owner, too, and that’s made me more sensitive to the issues of “unincorporated” America. The consciousness of black dirt populism runs strong in me since I’m also the descendant of early 16th century immigrant Quaker and German farmers. This combination causes me to tend a bit more to the right, or libertarian bent.

The bottom line for me is the quality of our water, air and soil; you know, the building blocks of health. You could brand me a radical environmentalist, but like all stereotyping it’s only a fraction of the story. Yes, I’d like to restore Eden. Even Jehovah couldn’t argue with that.

So, what’s brought on all this self-confessional everyman leitmotif rambling?

Monday the 10th, discharging my duty as a planning board member, I attended the joint land use planning session concerning Chatham County and Cary. The Chatham Board of Commissioners, Planning Board and about 150-200 mostly east Chatham citizens gathered at the North Chatham Middle School. We all examined maps, answered questions about what we thought were the good and not so good features of Chatham, and what we’d like to see more and less of. And since these were mostly people who are clustered around Jordan Lake, many of the answers were based on the impairment of Jordan Lake; you know, one of those vital building blocks of health. The next day I sat through a Major Corridor Planning work session with the board of commissioners and a few citizens at the community college in Pittsboro. This is the preliminary planning along highways 64 and 15-501.

At the middle school, easels and sketch pads were set up to record responses to the above questions. There were many citizens who wanted cluster development and there were many who opposed it. There was much interest in protecting the lake, the farms, and the general pastoral ambiance of the area. But, there was one unifying theme: keep Cary and it’s growth on the other side of the Wake County line!

The Triangle “J” Council of Governments predicts that east Chatham will grow from about 35,000 to 117,000 by 2035 and that the entire county will grow to about 150,000 from 60,000 in the same period, a 250% increase. One big chunk of that future growth will, no doubt, be between Pittsboro and Jordan Lake, on the approximately 11 square miles owned by SAS mogul, Jim Goodnight.

If those numbers are anywhere near accurate, it’s easy to see that protecting water, air, soil and other quality of life indicators will force us to implement stronger pollution limits and water preservation and reuse strategies. Periodic drought is inevitable; and a 250% increase in Chatham’s population with current water use policies could easily lead to massive failures of our water supply.

With all that’s at stake I wonder if the Chatham democratic muscles have the strength and endurance for the task. Will big money steamroll community welfare? Will citizens stand up, study, and weigh in with sufficient numbers to be effective? Will local government make the tough calls correctly. Will Chatham and Cary reach a joint land use plan that is equitable and enforceable? Will Cary exercise its right to annex parts of Chatham without our consent? Legally, Cary can do just that.

This is indeed the time for every citizen to get involved. We need brains, shrewd bargaining skills, stick-to-it-ive-ness, and a sense that we owe our descendants on this land these attributes: love, care, and caution as we build their sustainable future.

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