SOMETIMES IT TAKES A VILLAGE to build a village. Case in point: Briar Chapel, a 1,589-acre master planned community approved for development this spring in Pittsboro, N.C., a few miles down the road from Chapel Hill, home of the University of North Carolina.
When Newland Communities first proposed creating Chatham County's largest development ever in 2001, the plan was “dead on arrival,” says Diane Gaynor, a San Diego public affairs executive Newland hired to help rescue the project. By a whopping 5-0 vote against a recommendation for approval by the county planning staff, Newland's plan was sent to the real estate graveyard.
But with a little help—no, make that a lot of help—from the developer's friends in the real estate and business communities, the once-comatose property was resurrected. And four years later, in a major change of heart, the powers that be gave the community their blessings.
Nowadays, gaining clearance for practically any housing development tends to dissolve into a contentious battle between good and evil. Even small projects with only a handful of houses and little impact frequently are fought tooth and nail. But the struggle over Briar Chapel was “particularly venomous,” according to Gaynor, who is executive vice president of Roni Hicks & Associates.
“The land development process is getting harder and harder, but this one was especially difficult,” says Gaynor. She uses such terms as “nasty,” “mean,” and “dirty” to describe the battle that culminated in a February vote to allow Newland Carolina to go ahead with its first major mixed-used community in the state's second fastest growing county.
A COUNTY DIVIDED When Newland's opening salvo at developing Briar Chapel was announced in the summer of 2001, Chatham County was a house divided—a “tale of two cities,” if you will. Pittsboro, the county seat, was profiting from growth in the nearby Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill Research Triangle area, but Siler City was struggling to regain an economic base left in shambles since the textile industry picked up and left town.
“The county's two major towns are only 20 miles apart, Pittsboro in the northeast part of the county and Siler City in the west, but they were worlds apart,” says Gaynor. “And here was a belief in the Siler City area that decisions made in Pittsboro benefited only that end of the county but not the other.” Whether that sentiment is true or not is debatable. Nevertheless, when Newland's plan fell on the county commissioners' desks, it landed with a thud. More than 200 residents attended public hearings that July and August, mostly to oppose the project, forcing the San Diego-based company to make a hasty retreat.
When the company came back a few months later with an offer to build fewer houses, a large number of residents continued to voice their opposition, and environmentalists and neighbors of the proposed sewage treatment facility worried that the plant could become “a disaster” for the county, according to one local newspaper's account. And in May 2002, the second plan was summarily rejected, 5-0. Not only did they shoot down the project, the commissioners proposed a moratorium against any development with the size and scope of Briar Chapel.
But most of the resistance fighters were from the Pittsboro area. Folks in Siler City, on the other hand, looked at Newland's proposal as a Godsend for their economically depressed region. “They saw the ripple effect that such a project could have,” says Chris Sinclair, president of Public Solutions in Raleigh.
The trouble was, nobody asked them to weigh in. “They were being ignored,” says Sinclair. “There was no outreach to them.”
Learn more about markets featured in this article: Durham, NC.