Chatham Park breaks ground as developer, citizen group battle
Posted December 2, 2014
Updated December 4, 2014
Pittsboro, N.C. — Officials broke ground Tuesday on the first phase of the massive Chatham Park project as a court battle by a citizens group aimed at stopping the mixed-use development waged on.
Chatham Park Investors LLC recently filed a motion to dismiss a lawsuit by Pittsboro Matters and 15 citizens to stop the project. The citizen group claims the Pittsboro Board of Commissioners violated state and local zoning rules, including a lack of proper meeting notices, and wants a judge to overturn Chatham Park’s rezoning and master plans and block town leaders from issuing development permits.
The developers claim Pittsboro Matters is influencing legislation, which they say is against the group’s articles of incorporation.
“Pittsboro Matters' Chair Amanda Robertson has sworn under penalty of perjury to the Internal Revenue Service that Pittsboro Matters will ‘not devote more than an insubstantial part of its activities attempting to influence legislation,’ which under oath affirmation is a requirement for obtaining tax exempt status,” the developers said in their motion. “Pittsboro Matters' Chair Amanda Robertson also answered the question, ‘Do you or will you attempt to influence legislation?’ by marking the box ‘No.’ And yet Pittsboro Matters' entire reason for being is to influence zoning legislation in the Town of Pittsboro.”
Chatham Park Investors also claim that funds collected by Pittsboro Matters as tax-deductible charitable contributions have been improperly spent on attorney fees related to the case.
According to the IRS, an organization cannot quality for tax-exempt status if “a substantial part” of its activities are for lobbying. The IRS determines whether a nonprofit’s lobbying efforts are substantial by examining factors that include the amount of time and money spent on lobbying.
Jeffrey Starkweather, a Pittsboro Matters co-founder who is named in the suit, said the organization’s tax status isn’t relevant.
“That is a complete red herring,” he said. “It has zero relevance to this lawsuit. It wouldn't matter if we were tax exempt, non-tax exempt or just a group of people coming together. You can't have a substantial amount of your revenue be spent on lobbying legislation. We are a nonprofit. Like all nonprofits, we can expend 20 percent of money (we) receive on trying to influence legislation.”
Starkweather added that he believes the developers are trying to bully his group into giving up.
“We are proceeding with the lawsuit,” he continued. “We expect to prevail. Our purpose is to settle this thing. This is about improving the development, not stopping this thing. These are things that need to be decided in court, not in the press.”
Meanwhile, Preston Development Co., the Cary-based developer in charge of the project, broke ground on Chatham Park’s first building Tuesday afternoon – a 25,000-square-foot medical office that will be occupied by UNC Health Care specialists.
The building, which will be an outpatient facility, is expected to be occupied by August 2015, said Tim Smith, a Preston Development partner. Specialty services will include opthamology, general surgery, ear, nose and throat, and rheumatology.
“We have a lot of interest from doctors and dentists who want to locate in some of our rental facilities here,” Smith said. “We have homebuilders that want to build with us, schools, YMCA, retail. So, it’s a lot of people who are interested in coming here and joining with us at Chatham Park, so we are excited.”
Chatham Park, a multi-use development of homes, businesses, research space and parks that would encompass more than 7,000 acres between the east side of Pittsboro and Jordan Lake, is expected to be completed in phases over 30 years.
The development, which is three times Pittsboro’s current area and equivalent to the size of Research Triangle Park, is expected to increase the town’s population from 3,000 to more than 60,000 residents – or by more than 2,000 percent.
The project’s initial approval came after months of public hearings and debates, where residents expressed their support and opposition in meetings lasting long into the night. Proponents say the project, which has been in the works for years, would boost the local economy and bring more jobs to the area. Opponents believe the development would strain local resources and eradicate Pittsboro’s small town feel.
On Monday, the Pittsboro Planning Department approved the developers' request to add an additional 46.6 acres to the project.
Pittsboro commissioners will now have to re-approve the entire proposal to grant the additional acreage. A vote could come as early as next week. If the additional land is denied, the original master plan’s approval would still stand.