Triangle Chatter

Embedding Sustainability Solutions in a Master Planned Community

Chatham ParkThe Research Triangle Region of North Carolina consistently sits at the top of “best place” lists – to live, grow a company or raise a family. Our reputation is an open secret, and the region is expected to add 40,000 new residents a year over the next twenty years. At the same time, the region’s renowned research park, The Research Triangle Park, is nearing full occupancy.

Chatham Park, a proposed master planned community totaling nearly 8,000 acres at the intersection of two major highways in Pittsboro, N.C., represents a future anchor to one of the nation’s fastest growing, economically vibrant and desirable areas.

Chatham Park

Chatham Park is a new community designed to conserve significant open space, establish vibrant village and town centers, and attractively connect neighborhoods with businesses, entertainment, education and nature though an extensive trail system. It will be a place where the human and the natural connect in more rewarding ways — where you’ll be able to walk out your front door and experience the energy of Main Street or walk out your back door and feel the serenity of a quiet nature preserve. It builds on the traditions of other communities that successfully sought to create more environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable places.

Precedents include two communities I have had the privilege to develop: Reston, Virginia, the nation’s first planned community, which has been recognized as much for its extensive natural areas as for its vibrant town center, and The Woodlands, north of Houston, Texas, which was “designed with nature” to allow a robust city to rise within a thriving forest.

Chatham Park will be the best expression of smart growth values, incorporating long-range, regional considerations of sustainability: Open space preservation. Targeted goals to reduce natural resource consumption. Connected technology.

The Research Triangle Regional Partnership’s new Cleantech Cluster has become Chatham Park’s partner in a collaborative effort to commercialize the exciting innovations of over 200 companies engaged in clean
technologies in the Research Triangle Region. This strategic alliance will permit Chatham Park to raise the bar
on sustainability solutions within the community.

Chatham Park will be built from the ground up with digitized infrastructure that will allow for the monitoring
and data processing needed to achieve large reductions in the use of water, electricity and carbon-based fuels.

This means that not only will Chatham Park be preserving forest and land as its precedent communities have
done, but it will extend beyond their achievements to make visible to residents and businesses their ability to
conserve a more comprehensive and significant range of natural resources. That Chatham Park will be fed by a vision of not doing piece-meal development – a Planned Development District will overlay the entire
community – means systems-thinking is achievable. This may be Chatham Park’s most distinctive urban
planning innovation.

With 1,000 acres set aside for accommodating businesses, Chatham Park will contain the largest new center for bringing employees together in North Carolina. The community will attract a range of jobs, as the region
continues to draw expanding industries in the areas of technology, life sciences and medicine. The residents of
Chatham Park will be able to live where they work, creating a greater work-life balance. When fully built out
over the next thirty years, Chatham Park will have over 20,000 homes clustered in five villages.

While I am proud that Reston and The Woodlands demonstrated the ecological advantages of taking a holistic
approach to community planning, of being in one place where you could live, work and play (not to mention the
health advantages of living surrounded by natural beauty), they could not have been designed to deploy new
technologies that address energy, water, or waste management challenges with an integrated information and
communication systems-based approach. In this way, Chatham Park will be different. We call it a “future
enabled community.” What this means is that Chatham Park will be a resilient community.

Chatham Park will provide demonstration and deployment projects that are crucial to bringing clean technology
into widespread market readiness through scaled performance and cost assessment over a build-out period of
several decades.

Chatham Park is a privately funded development and the clean technologies deployed there will be pragmatic.
We are “blinders-off” to the reality that emerging technologies face a marketplace that is risk averse, requires
high rates of return, is marked by incumbent technologies, and often has policy and program hurdles to

However, this project represents a significant opportunity to demonstrate emerging and enabling technologies,
helping overcome barriers to their widespread adoption. The Chatham Park – Research Triangle Cleantech
partnership will institute a holistic, phased approach that will showcase the commercial viability of
clean technology today and into the future. As a greenfield, Chatham Park represents a significant opportunity
to model savings from efficiency technologies and allow capital resources to be diverted to alternative

Events like Meeting of the Minds shows the interest there is in putting the new powers we possess to use in
making our cities and towns more efficient – and more livable. Endeavors like Chatham Park provide an
especially promising venue for executing the new technologies, measuring them, and demonstrating their
benefits to a world much in need of their positive results.

About the Author : Thomas D'Alesandro brings over 25 years of experience operating real estate companies - development and management organizations of up to 1,300 people - and has overseen the nation's largest mixed use master planned communities, including The Woodlands, TX, and Summerlin, NV. Mr. D'Alesandro's Blakefield, LLC has been advising clients globally on development strategy and execution since its founding in 2010.


  1. Leon Tongret's avatar
    Leon Tongret
    | Permalink
    The plan sounds good, but the proof will come when we can see the actual results.
  2. kitty's avatar
    | Permalink
    With only approximately 250 acres set aside for green-space for a 7000 acre project with 20,000 homes, I don't believe that "people will be able to walk out their back door to a Nature Preserve".
  3. Jeffrey Starkweather's avatar
    Jeffrey Starkweather
    | Permalink
    I appreciate Triangle Chatter publishing the public relations view from the developers of this proposed master planned community that would essentially take the small town of Pittsboro, Chatham County's county seat. However, at this point that developers have requested approval of a master plan for their community that would essentially be "blank check" for to them to proceed with the virtually unchecked "flexibility" to design and develop a town of 55,000 residents with few, if any, any objective sustainability or smart growth standards or measures. They have essentially asked Pittsboro to "trust us."

    I have been on the Chatham County Economic Development Corporation board since before Chatham Park developers even engaged Thomas D'Alesandro to work on the design of this proposed development. I supported the concept of a sustainable, smart growth community that allowed folks to live, work, recreate and engage in commerce in the same walkable and bikeable town. But the devil is in the details and the town has not been supplied those details and some of the details they have provided are questionable for a sustainable standpoint.
    We were all pleased when we heard Chatham Park had asked the Triangle Land Conservancy to undertake an environment assessment of the site and make recommendations how to protect valuable natural resources in the design of this "new town." It appeared the developers were moving in the direction of designing their development on the principles of a conservation subdivision or community where the most valuable environmental assets are protected and the development occurs around them, not in or through them. Unfortunately, according to professional environmental experts who have reviewed Chatham Park's proposed master plan, they have essentially ignored the recommendations of the environmental assessment.

    Thus, we cannot proceed with the old trust the developer and their hired gun experts’ model.

    I am a part of a recently formed citizen group, Pittsboro Matters, made up of Pittsboro and area residents, downtown business owners and operators, farmers, non-profit staff, etc., which is neither for or against the development. We want the best development possible and we want to make the values of the residents of the Pittsboro area and their values are both enhanced and protected in the design and implementation of this development. There are way too many unanswered questions about the development and its implications for our town and region that have not been answered. Some important issues have not even been raised and/or addressed by the developers or the town.

    Pittsboro Matters is asking the town board to do three things are this early stage: 1) slow down the review and approval process; 2) bring in independent outside experts who can assist the town in reviewing and revising the plan for this development; and keep the process open and get meaningful citizen input in the design and scope of this essentially 'new town" development that would make Pittsboro have a greater population than Chapel Hill.

    Virtually every resident we have approached in the Pittsboro areas agrees with these three requests. We look forward to a formal response from the Pittsboro Town Board and Mayor to our three requests.

    If you want to learn more and/or sign on petition that makes the above-three request, go to

    Below is an article I wrote about this development proposal for a local monthly newspaper, entitled the Chatham County Line ( that spells out of number of the concerns the community has raised about this development.

    Jeffrey Starkweather, 41 year Pittsboro resident., 919-417-0969

    Will Chatham Park Enhance or Destroy Our Rural Paradise?
    The best way to predict your future is to create it. Abraham Lincoln

    By Jeffrey Starkweather

    Forty-one years ago I drove down a two-lane blacktop from Chapel Hill to Pittsboro to check out a more than 100 year old Victorian house that would soon become my family’s home. I felt like I was entering a National Forest. I chose Pittsboro because I wanted to live, work and raise a family in the type of small town where I was raised in California. I immediately fell in love with Pittsboro and its people. A year later I began running a weekly newspaper and soon developed the same love for rural Chatham.

    Recently, I attended two public hearings on the proposed rezoning of 7,120 acres for a mixed-use, planned development called Chatham Park that could bring 55,000 to the county seat. Based on the many citizen presentations made I was delighted to learn that most people who migrated to the Pittsboro area love it as much as I do, and for the same reasons including small town comforts and agrarian beauty.

    But all of this could be at risk unless the Pittsboro Board of Commissioners makes the right decisions in response to the Chatham Park rezoning proposal. The right decision involves the Pittsboro Board of Commissioners requiring Chatham Park to be a 21st century development that achieves four goals. These include (1) enhancing the prosperity of local residents,(2) protecting the Haw River and Jordan Lake – Pittsboro’s and Chatham County’s drinking water supplies, (3) protecting the beautiful, steeply rolling Chatham Park landscape and (4) designing a community that acknowledges new realities including especially a changing climate that promises to drastically alter our local environment. Creating this type of development will require cooperative, land use planning involving Pittsboro, Chatham County and Preston Development Company of Cary – the developers of Chatham Park.

    As of now, Preston Development Company has failed to achieve any of the above four goals. In this regard the Chatham Park Master Plan has flunked its first test. Several years ago, Preston Development Company asked the Triangle Land Conservancy (TLC) to undertake an environmental assessment of the Chatham Park lands adjacent to the Haw River and Jordan Lake. TLC partnered with the University of North Carolina Center for Sustainable Community Design and in 2008 came up with the Southwest Shore Conservation Assessment. This Assessment recommended the creation of a conservation oriented development that preserved critical environmental areas including wetlands, steep slopes and working farmland. This report was done for the purpose of guiding Chatham Park’s master plan.

    Preston Development Company, however, totally ignored the Assessment recommendations and proceeded to create a master plan that Pittsboro now should reject. It should because the Chatham Park Master Plan promises multiple problems including (1) undue disruption of neighboring communities, (2) massive sedimentation and nutrient pollution of areas streams, the Haw River and Jordan Lake, (3) extensive grading of steep slopes many exceeding 15%, (4) the destruction of thousands of acres of forests that help moderate our local climate and (5) the destruction of miles of ephemeral, intermittent and perennial streams. All of this will occur without Pittsboro area residents being guaranteed either good local jobs or business opportunities.

    For these reasons the Pittsboro Board of Commissioners should require Preston Development Company to redesign the master plan to protect those natural areas recommended by the Southwest Shore Conservation Assessment. This can be done by using low impact and green building design concepts that focus especially on much better protection of steep slopes, area streams, Jordan Land, the Haw River and critical habitats. At the same time, Preston Development Company should be required as much as possible to locally source supplies and services and to guarantee a certain number of good paying jobs for qualified local residents. For more information concerning Chatham Park please see “16 Questions the Pittsboro Board of Commissioners should ask Chatham Park Investors” at

    Local residents and the town staff, have told the Pittsboro Board of Commissioners the developers’ proposed master plan does not meet Pittsboro Planned Development District ordinance requirements especially the requirement to “deliver communities of exceptional design, character and quality that preserve critical environmental resources and provide open space amenities”. As a result, Chatham Park fails to qualify for the development flexibility and density the developers seek.

    For these reasons, the Pittsboro Town Board must pause and get professional help in reviewing this massive proposal. Pittsboro’s small – essentially four man staff – needs help conducting a thorough economic and environmental review and assembling the legal and planning infrastructure and documents needed to ensure the developer can live up to its promises. This includes whatever safeguards the town wishes to impose to protect Pittsboro and its environment. Of special importance is the development of a formal local stakeholder review process that can assist in revising and reviewing the master plan and subsequent detailed site plans.

    This outside help is needed despite the fact Chatham Park partner Tim Smith asserted the development was unlikely to fail because it is backed by SAS Institute cofounder Jim Goodnight. According to Tim Smith …“He’s the richest man in the state of North Carolina, and he won’t run out of money.”

    We’ve heard such assurances before. But as we’ve learned during our ongoing Great Recession, wealthy investors can make mistakes, run out of money, and find themselves unable to fulfill their best-laid plans. Even Robert Simon who initially developed Reston, Virginia, a much earlier massive planned community, was ousted by Gulf Oil due to his financial problems, which in turn was later brought out by Mobile Corporation, Moreover, just because Mr. Goodnight has funded successful high-end McMansion developments in Cary and elsewhere does not mean he and his partners have the experience and expertise to successfully develop this proposed new town that could become the size of Chapel Hill. This is not a prediction of failure but a warning that we must take our time in assessing the marketing, environmental, traffic, fiscal and social-economic aspects of this development before we sign a binding 30-plus year development agreement.

    The town now has its greatest leverage opportunities BEFORE any rezoning request is granted. Now is the time to revise both the town’s development approval process and the proposed master plan so that Pittsboro will truly have an environmentally, economically and socially sustainable Chatham Park development.

    Let us be clear. Many of us would prefer that Pittsboro grow organically rather than through a massive planned community of 55,000 people. But we also are pragmatic. We understand that a holistically planned community with good paying jobs and clean green-tech industries could provide enhanced parks and recreation, and opportunities for people to work near where they live rather than sit in traffic due to sprawl. We also know that the devil in is in the details. We want to work collaboratively with the developers and town officials to make the best quality planned community possible that achieves the four goals highlighted above. These include (1) enhancing local resident prosperity, (2) protecting water resources (3) protecting the Chatham Park landscape and (4) creating a community that acknowledges the challenges of climate change.

    It also is important Chatham Park does not foster urban sprawl in surrounding areas. Folks in Chatham now clearly understand the undesirable aspects of sprawl. These include (1) increased property taxes to meet growing needs for facilities and services,(2) increased reliance on automobiles with resulting air, water and noise pollution, (3) loss of family and community time due to long commutes, (4) isolation of the young and old, (5) loss of farmland, forests and outdoor natural amenities, (6) increased obesity, diabetes, and asthma, (7) increased risks of catastrophic climate change, and (8) increase in income inequality due to the need for low income people to live far from major job centers.

    If Chatham Park lives up to its promise of a walkable community where residents can live near where they work, it could make Pittsboro a more economically sustainable area. This, in turn, might attract more innovative businesses and promote community development.

    Will it work? The new town experience in the United States is mixed. Where it has been successful it has provided a significant improvement over uncoordinated suburban sprawl in terms of providing an opportunity to live, work, and recreate in the same community. Such developments have protected open space and promoted green communities, provided racially integrated communities and reduced commuting time. Moreover, adjacent small town downtowns have generally thrived. However, they have not had as much success in providing affordable housing or eliminating the dependence on cars.

    One troubling aspect of the experience of new town and planned communities is that they have had little impact on slowing sprawl outside their boundaries. This reality probably will apply to Chatham Park even if it is developed as an innovative smart growth planned community of 55,000. This is the case because the current Chatham County Board of Commissioners has rejected the idea of starting a comprehensive land use planning process designed to promote “rural preservation with targeted employment.”

    Stakeholders who live in and around Pittsboro are working to ensure Chatham Park will meet our four goals and be a benefit to both Preston Development Company and all residents of greater Pittsboro. To this end a stakeholder’s alliance is emerging that equally addresses economic, environmental and social justice issues such as affordable housing. The motto of this emerging alliance is “Pittsboro Matters” ( This means equally addressing environmental, economic and social justice issues for the long term benefit of the whole Pittsboro community. We invite all concerned Pittsboro and Chatham County residents to join us.

    Jeffrey Starkweather is a retired local newspaper editor and civil rights attorney who has lived in Pittsboro for 41 years. He has served on the Chatham County Economic Development Corporation, the Chatham County Planning board, the Chatham Affordable Housing Advisory Board and has served as the policy advisor to the county’s Green Building and Sustainable Energy Board. He was also has served as a vice chair of ChathamArts and part-time Executive Director of the North Carolina Smart Growth Alliance.

    This article is the ninth in a series designed to highlight what we must do to create widespread prosperity in the 21st century. The series is sponsored by CONNECT – a Chatham based network of civic groups ( These articles emphasize one main point: prosperity is the product of natural and environmental resources, population, technology and work. It is up to us to make the right choices to achieve this goal.

Leave a Comment