Chatham County is unique, residents and leaders say, because of the dichotomy between its urban and agricultural landscapes, its diverse people and cultures, its rivers and forests, and its potential to grow over the next 25 years.
The county faces pressure to grow from Chapel Hill and Durham to the north and Wake County to the east, so its leaders have worked with residents and others over the last few years to craft the comprehensive Chatham Plan to protect what exists and guide future development.
The plan’s top goals are preserving the county’s rural character, lifestyle, agriculture and forestry.
Chatham County — at 682 square miles of land — is larger than both Orange and Durham counties and roughly 90 percent undeveloped. The plan foresees compact commercial and residential development around the towns of Pittsboro, Goldston and Siler City, while leaving less-dense homes and businesses for rural areas.
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Pittsboro is the busy, historic county seat, and Goldston the smallest town in the county with 350 residents. The largest town in the county is Siler City, where Hispanics comprise nearly half of its 8,444 residents. The fortunes of small businesses have waned in the last decade as many textile, furniture and chicken processing plants have closed their doors.
Sam Zinaich said he will close his stained-glass business as soon as he sells the building he’s occupied in downtown Siler City for 19 years. Very few people visit the downtown area anymore, he and others said, despite special events and the work of the North Carolina Arts Incubator and the Oasis Open Air Market.
Changes are afoot — like the newly renovated apartments in the old Siler City Auto Parts building downtown and the construction of a new Mountaire Farms poultry processing plant — but the town needs more businesses, more job opportunities and more things to do that will keep young people from leaving, Zinaich said.
“The future of Siler City’s in our young people, not us old-timers,” he said.
All three towns are identified as established commerce centers in the Chatham Plan, with two- to four-story buildings, a mix of higher-density homes and businesses, and more public gathering spaces. Each one also has an adjacent employment center, from the Chatham-Siler City Advanced Manufacturing and Moncure megasites to smaller centers near Pittsboro and Goldston.
The Chatham Plan will face a public hearing at the Chatham County Board of Commissioners meeting Monday, Aug. 21, at the Historic Courthouse in Pittsboro. The county will take public comment on the plan through Monday, Aug. 28. The commissioners could adopt the plan this fall.
“The plan is intended to be forward thinking, foster economic development, recognize the county’s assets, and manage growth, while also preserving its unique community character,” Planning Director Jason Sullivan said.
It’s needed because Chatham is one of North Carolina’s fastest-growing counties, County Manager Renee Paschal said.
Chatham County’s population grew 84 percent in the last 25 years to about 71,000, according to the U.S. Census. Roughly two-thirds of those residents live in rural areas and about a third – and growing – are age 60 or older. More people are coming – nearly 60,000 more are expected by 2040.
Many will live in Chatham Park, a 7,000-acre planned community that will be annexed into Pittsboro. The project could add 2,200 homes and about 22 million square feet of commercial, office, and research and development space. The first major phase of construction is starting now on more than 300 apartments, a hotel, retail and restaurants at the northeastern corner of U.S. 15-501 and U.S. 64.
Meanwhile, Briar Chapel continues to expand its commercial presence to the north, clearing 30 acres on both sides of U.S. 15-501 for more retail, offices and a Central Carolina Community College Health Sciences building. The 1,589-acre community approved in 2007 eventually could have up to 2,500 homes.
The Chatham Plan notes the future of those large communities and the desire to limit their impact on the county’s agricultural and environmentally sensitive areas. It also addresses growing concerns about transportation, utilities and infrastructure, housing, the county’s economy, health, and parks and recreation.
Rural residents remain wary of the county’s plans and the possibility that large, suburban subdivisions and commercial growth along U.S. 15-501 between Chapel Hill and Pittsboro will spread across the county. They still come together around schools, churches and corner gas stations, and operate small, sometimes home-based businesses, often providing farm-related services. Most are more politically, financially and socially conservative than their northeastern counterparts.
Many spoke out last year when the commissioners approved zoning 388 square miles of unzoned land, concerned about how it could limit the use of their own land.
Farmer Ray Sugg waved to passing neighbors as he talked about the history of the community around his Bonlee Grown Farms, in southwestern Chatham County. He rattled off the names of people who used to own surrounding land, and the feed mill companies that came in and made their dollars, before leaving with the jobs.
He and his wife Amy moved to Bonlee to raise their family in 1991 and now feature vegetables and flowers, eggs and honey on more than 30 acres.
Like other rural residents, Sugg doesn’t want to see high-end subdivisions and shops stretching into their communities, and they don’t want the government telling them what they can do with their land. It’s clear why the county needs to plan for its future, he said, and making a stink about it probably won’t make a difference.
“I think here it’s comfortable like it is for everybody. It’s very comfortable for me,” Sugg said. “You see a lot of pastures and there used to be a lot more chicken house farmers than there is now. ... I know why they’re doing what they’re doing (in the northeast), and that’s fine, and it’s coming this way. I know that it is.”
The Chatham Plan tries to strike a balance between preserving historical and natural resources and attracting necessary growth and economic development, said Paschal and Kyle Touchstone, executive director of Chatham County Economic Development Corp., a nonprofit that supports Chatham businesses.
“I think having a guide for everyone to kind of live by and know where the boundaries are and where we can play and where we shouldn’t play is important, because long range, we want to see Chatham County have a very strong mix of what’s currently here,” Touchstone said. “We just want to add to that, whether it be agriculture or business or parks and recreation.”
Chatham County saw more than 600 residential building permits annually in the years leading up to the 2008 recession. Construction has rebounded since then, and nearly 30,000 homes expected over the next few decades, officials said.
Meanwhile, commercial growth has stalled and businesses have closed, leaving only about 14,000 jobs for 32,000 working adults. Roughly 55 percent of Chatham residents now leave the county for work, which means they also aren’t eating lunch at local restaurants or shopping at local stores, Touchstone said.
The county is losing about $207 million in retail sales each year — and the related tax revenue — to other counties, according to the Chatham Plan. More residents could attract national retail and restaurant operators, but Touchstone said they also want to keep small businesses thriving, especially in rural areas.
Infrastructure plans and investment, especially in water and sewer services, will be crucial in attracting more businesses and jobs that help pay for local services, he said. Homeowners now pay about 91 percent of the property taxes, although Paschal said high-end housing has mitigated the pressure on lower-income taxpayers.
“We are a community of well-educated individuals who want strong education, strong community services, and having the funds to do that is so important,” Touchstone said. “We are constantly talking about that sales tax leakage and the need for jobs.”
An out-of-county workforce also affects the “volunteer infrastructure,” Paschal said, because it cuts into the time they have to coach school sports teams or volunteer with fire departments and nonprofit groups. That’s also part of what makes Chatham County a wonderful place to live and work, she said.
“There’s just still a strong sense of community,” she said.
The 25-year Chatham County Comprehensive Plan is available for review — chathamnc.org/comprehensiveplan — and public comment through Aug. 28. A public hearing will be held at 6 p.m. Monday, Aug. 21, at the Historic Courthouse in Pittsboro.
Comments also can be submitted to the Chatham County Planning Department, P.O. Box 54, Pittsboro NC 27312.
By the numbers
▪ Past population: 84 percent increase since 1990 to 70,928
▪ Future population: 128,327 people expected by 2040
▪ Employment: Of the 45 percent of adults who work in the county, 46 percent work for companies with 100 or fewer employees; the plan is to add 10,000 jobs by 2040
▪ Retail challenge: 58 percent of potential sales — especially clothing, electronics, appliances, and motor vehicles and parts — are lost to other counties
▪ Land: 68 percent forested; 75 percent farmed or in forestry
▪ Agriculture: 1,138 farms, largely raising crops and dairy cattle in northwest, and timber, poultry and livestock in south
▪ Livestock: $154.9 million in 2012 sales; state’s second-highest in cattle sales and top 15 for poultry
▪ Forestry: $238.6 million economic impact in 2012
▪ Open space: 41,000 acres, mostly in the Jordan Lake State Recreation Area
▪ Housing: 75 percent single-family homes; 14 percent mobile homes; few affordable rentals
▪ Home sales: Median price $260,500, a 7.7 percent increase since 2016
▪ Transportation goals: Better local and regional service, sidewalks and greenways, bike lanes, and safer rural roads
▪ Parks and recreation: 55,500 acres of public and conservation land, 435 acres county park land, 107 miles of planned greenways and trails
▪ Growth: 70 percent of new development expected in towns and their planning areas
▪ Tourism: $32.5 million annual economic impact, with anticipated growth
▪ Conservation: Permanently protect 20,000 more acres by 2040; reduce carbon emissions, while promoting green,sustainable jobs and lifestyles