In Feature

By Matthew Burns

Eight thousand acres is about 12½ square miles, about twice the size of Boone and larger than all of the incorporated towns in Chatham County combined, according to IndexMundi, a website of state municipal statistics. The county seat, Pittsboro, is a mere 4 square miles in size, but it sits just west of the 8,000 acres on which developers Tim Smith and Julian “Bubba” Rawl have invested more than $200 million.

Smith and Rawl are launching Chatham Park, which is likely the Triangle’s next boomtown and the largest planned community in North Carolina’s history. When fully built, Chatham Park is expected to have 22,000 homes and 22 million square feet of office and retail space, making it among the largest such developments nationally. An analysis by North Carolina State University estimates it will create 61,000 jobs and an $80 billion impact for Chatham County over 40 years. The developers bet that a chunk of the Triangle’s population growth — likely  to top 500,000 over the next 15 years —   will choose the site 30 miles south of downtown Durham.

“We’re still adding to it,” Rawl says. Property owners on the fringes of their planned Chatham Park continue to approach them about selling their land.

“It’s a hell of a way to go out,” Smith says with a laugh, acknowledging that neither he nor Rawl will likely see Chatham Park through to its completion in 30 to 40 years. Both men are in their mid-60s.

The project is the culmination of more than three decades in real-estate development for the partners, which started in 1983 when Smith called Rawl about buying a piece of land along the Raleigh-Cary border for a car dealership. “I’ve been married to him as long as I have my wife,” Rawl says, recalling that he was on his honeymoon when he first received a message from Smith.

An engineer by training, Smith shapes projects from the lay of the land, while Rawl handles the marketing as the developments rise from the ground. Rawl, a Greenville native, started and sold a sportswear company to Nike before entering real estate. “They are two completely different people who are both super bright and who complement each other,” says Karl Blackley, a 20-year colleague. Smith “sees things into the future,” Blackley says, while Rawl is the details guy, prone to stopping his car on the way to lunch to pick up litter in one of their partnership’s neighborhoods.

After several years of smaller projects, Smith and Rawl landed their first major residential development in 1991. Preston, a Cary golf course community, had been taken over by the federal Resolution Trust Corp. after its owner, a Dallas-based savings and loan, became insolvent. With banks nervous about extending credit in a slumping real-estate market, Smith approached Cary billionaire Jim Goodnight, the co-founder of software giant SAS Institute, about bankrolling the purchase. The two had known each other for more than a decade, with Smith selling Goodnight several parcels of land that became part of SAS’ sprawling corporate campus.

An investor group led by Goodnight paid    $11.2 million for the 1,400-acre development, including Prestonwood Country Club, and Smith and Rawl were catapulted into the big leagues of Triangle real estate just as the market heated up.

With Goodnight acting as what Smith describes as “a very friendly banker,” the team went on to craft upscale neighborhoods throughout Cary, from Wessex in the north to Camden Forest in the south to Cameron Pond in the west. While they handled some commercial projects, creating high-end residential developments and then selling lots to homebuilders became their calling card. They chose Preston Development as the name for their company to recognize the breakthrough deal.

“The quality of their work really sets them apart,” says Tommy Drake, a Raleigh land broker who has helped Smith and Rawl put together projects including Chatham Park. “There’s a consistency in their quality and in their follow-through. Some people walk away from a deal when the going gets tough ­— not these guys.”

Goodnight’s backing has helped them ride the economic waves more smoothly than dealing with commercial banks. Preston is owned 50-50 by Smith and Rawl, who won’t share details about their financial ties to North Carolina’s wealthiest man except that they update him twice a year.

“He understands what we’re doing — the dynamics of the real-estate business — and he sees it as a safe investment,” Smith says. Goodnight declined to respond to questions. “[He] really doesn’t comment on his personal business activities,” SAS spokeswoman Shannon Heath wrote in an email.

Goodnight’s patient investing and Smith’s and Rawl’s ability to time the market has led to tremendous opportunities. Just as they bought the Preston project out of bankruptcy, they grabbed the 2,300-acre Wakefield Plantation site in north Raleigh and part of Cary’s Weston business park in 1996 in a $41.3 million package deal from a KLM Royal Dutch Airlines pension fund. Wakefield had lain fallow for several years, but within three years, Smith and Rawl had obtained needed approvals to tee up a Preston-style project with a Tournament Players Club golf course. They then flipped Wakefield’s residential and commercial sections to different developers, pocketing significant profits. At about the same time, they sold most of Weston to Raleigh-based office developer Highwoods Properties Inc., retaining a small piece later turned into the Weston Estates neighborhood, where homes now sell for $700,000 to $900,000. “Some properties, you need to stay in for a while to see the value. Some you can sell early,” Smith says.

By 2000, when they looked for a new project, the Triangle’s growth that they had helped spur meant there were fewer open tracts. Also, the process of getting zoning and other local approvals had increased from weeks to months. So the pair decided to tackle one large project instead of several smaller ones. “We always try to buy land in the path of growth,” Smith says. With neighborhoods popping up in the Clayton area, growth had already beaten them to Johnston County — their first choice — so they shifted their attention to the west and Chatham County. Although some Cary developments trickle into eastern Chatham County and other subdivisions hug the Orange County line near Chapel Hill, the vast majority of the county remains bucolic, including the area west of Jordan Lake, where forests cover rolling hills that stretch toward Pittsboro. “They’re sort of the forgotten part of this region,” Smith says.

The idea of a development near Pittsboro came to an abrupt halt on Sept. 11, 2001. The terrorist attacks and the uncertainty of the dot-com bust caused Smith and Rawl to focus their efforts elsewhere. “There was such a lack of clarity in the economy that we had to back off,” Rawl says. “This is such a cyclical business that, if you hit it at the wrong time, it can be awful.”

The jittery economy created another buying opportunity. Timber giant Weyerhaeuser wanted to unload its 2,200-acre Landfall golf course community near Wilmington, which was already about 75% developed, and approached Smith and Rawl in early 2002. “With Landfall, we had a known product, so it was safer for us to move on that,” Rawl says. Their work on the coast led them to take over the 1,800-acre Carolina Colours development in New Bern in 2013 and to purchase the 200-slip Southport Marina from the state for $5.25 million earlier this year.

They initially wanted to buy the marina a decade ago when the North Carolina State Ports Authority first solicited bids for the dilapidated boatyard, which needed new capital investment. At that time, the new owner would have had to deal with a marina company holding a long-term operating lease, so Smith and Rawl bought the lessee and, with Goodnight’s backing, put in a bid for the marina.

Amid questions about then-Gov. Mike Easley’s potential influence over the deal, the state took the marina off the market but agreed to a lengthy lease extension. That wasn’t enough to head off an ethics complaint against the governor, who was accused of steering the marina toward political donors — Smith and Rawl had contributed about $14,000 to Easley’s campaigns between 2000 and 2006. The state Ethics Commission later found the allegations to be without merit.

Longtime marina manager Hank Whitley says Smith and Rawl “essentially rebuilt the marina,” replacing everything from the docks to the utilities. “It wasn’t the best time to do it, with the recession, but it had to be done for the marina to succeed,” Whitley says. Plans call for a second boat-storage facility, and Rawl says the marina may enlarge slips to accommodate bigger vessels.

By 2006, Smith and Rawl were ready to take another crack at Chatham County. They snapped up 1,800 acres southeast of Pittsboro from a retired judge, Wade Barber. Other investors had considered establishing a gated golf-course community on the land, similar to Governors Club in Chapel Hill. But those plans never came to fruition.

Smith and Rawl added parcels to their holdings through the 2007-09 recession, viewing the moribund real-estate market as another opportunity for bargain hunting. To date, they have sunk about $200 million into more than 100 tracts, stretching from the crossroads community of Bynum along the Haw River in the north to the southern reaches of Jordan Lake. In June, a Smith-affiliated company bought a nearby 647-acre tract for $4.2 million.

For Pittsboro residents, the growing size of the site Smith and Rawl are assembling has sparked lengthy, spirited opposition. Talk of Pittsboro’s population soaring from 4,000 to 60,000 in little more than a generation has frightened many who envision the loss of the town’s Mayberry-like charm. “We’re going to become a company town, essentially,” says Jeffrey Starkweather, a retired attorney who is a leader of the community group Pittsboro Matters.

The issues were more pragmatic for Bill Terry, who was town manager from 2007-12 and mayor from 2013-15. Limited wastewater capacity prompted Pittsboro’s moratorium on large developments for nearly a decade. To gain some control over Chatham Park’s development, town officials started working in 2007 on an updated land-use plan for areas outside Pittsboro’s limits. But suggestions pushed by a consultant Smith and Rawl hired created friction that lingered for years. “From their point of view, they were offering the town help,” Terry says. “I thought it was interference. They were trying to take over the rewriting of our land-use plan.”

The town rejected the consultant’s recommendations — Terry called it a “paper-thin document” that “required nothing of anybody” — and it was five years before Pittsboro officials approved their own plan. That merely moved the battle lines from land use to zoning, however, as Smith and Rawl sought approval for a “planned development district” that would give them more flexibility in crafting the project.

The distrust many Pittsboro residents had for the developers only grew with time, especially since the master plan submitted by Smith and Rawl painted only with broad strokes and left Pittsboro Matters and other groups demanding more detail. “It was a blank slate,” Starkweather says. “It’s not a plan; it’s just piecemeal. They’ve already changed their minds two or three times as to what they want to do.”

That, Smith says, is precisely the point. “We don’t know what’s going to happen 10, 20 years from now,” he says. “It would be stupid to plan for the next 40 years.” He notes that, if they had started Chatham Park at the turn of the century, it likely would now include three golf courses. Instead, none is planned for the community because, he says, “millennials don’t join country clubs.”

Rawl expects millennials to flock to the live-work-play model envisioned by Preston Development, including a brewpub, urban village, new schools, medical offices and office properties. “Many of the country’s finest restaurants [are] coming.”

Following their initial master plan, Smith and Rawl have submitted information on 12 “elements” for the project, including guidelines for stormwater management, landscaping, affordable housing and transit. “You don’t get credit for doing what’s required, so we’re stepping way past the requirements here,” Rawl says. One example: Preston Development plans to nearly double the amount of open space called for in the master plan.

The track record of Smith and Rawl should give them more leeway in designing a community, says Russell Killen, who as mayor of Knightdale worked with Preston on a 300-acre mixed-use project in the east Wake County town. “Tim and Bubba are just visionary guys,” says Killen, an attorney with Parker Poe Adams & Bernstein LLP in Raleigh. “They have really been able to see where things should go, not just where things are going, and then getting ahead of the curve.”

Meetings of Pittsboro’s Planning Board and Board of Commissioners became crowded, tense affairs, with people for and against Chatham Park facing off. “It was one of those issues that split the county,” Terry says. Some residents see the project as an economic boon — added tax base and new jobs — while others anticipate traffic congestion and environmental problems. “Every inch of the way brought sparks,” he says.

Despite the Triangle’s notorious traffic congestion, the new U.S. 64 bypass around Pittsboro and other road improvements attracted Chatham Park’s developers. “The new 540 turnpike road provides us with a great conduit into the RTP and the airport,” Rawl says. “You can drive from our new bridge/interchange location to the airport in around 25 minutes, downtown Chapel Hill in 15 minutes, and Durham, 25 to 30.”

Starkweather accused the developers of trying to “bully the town” by suggesting they would create their own municipality if Pittsboro didn’t cooperate. While they explored the idea of creating Chatham Park as its own town, “Pittsboro was hands down the best route for us,” Rawl says.

Smith and Rawl have never experienced as much opposition to one of their projects, including a headline in an environmental newsletter noting, “Meet Preston Development, They Want to Cut Down Your Forests.” The vitriol hurts, their colleague Blackley says, “but I don’t think they took it personally. We’ve been called a lot of things, but we know who we are. We know our values and ethics.”

Smith and Rawl say the project will reflect desires of area residents. Because a survey showed locals were most concerned about high-speed internet access, gigabit broadband is planned for residential areas,  while commercial areas will get 10 gigs. A solar farm will power some homes, charging stations for electric cars will be included in garages and parking lots, smart meters will monitor natural gas and electricity use, and purple pipe will be laid to recirculate partially treated wastewater for landscaping purposes. Miles of trails will link neighborhoods to parks, soccer fields, the banks of the Haw River and the western shore of Jordan Lake. “Consumers sort of demand these things now, and meeting those demands is what we’re all about,” Rawl says.

The Pittsboro Board of Commissioners voted 4-1 in June 2014 to approve Chatham Park’s master plan, but the battle still rages. Pittsboro Matters has repeatedly sued the town over the approval process, and while courts have ruled against the group at every turn, Starkweather vows continued appeals. “We’ve seen what happens when we allow developments like this: sprawl, pollution, a lower quality of life,” he says.

Mayor Cindy Perry, who succeeded Terry in 2015, created a committee to guide developers on issues such as public art and affordable housing. Recognizing that the Triangle’s growth is inevitable, Perry says she prefers the “unified project” offered by Smith and Rawl versus dealing with a patchwork of developments. “It’s clear they’ve done their homework,” she says. “They know what’s worked and what to tweak to fit with who we are and where we are.”

The scale of Chatham Park also has enough heft to kick-start plans for expanding the town’s wastewater treatment capacity, Perry adds. Terry calls the wastewater issue “an absolute chokepoint” for the project, noting it will take several years for a new treatment plant to be designed, permitted and built. But he says that will give Pittsboro more time to work with Smith and Rawl to plan for development. “There was a sense of urgency at first — a monolith was coming,” he says. “But the more people realize we have time to address issues, the less panicked they are about it.”

Still, development is moving forward. UNC Hospitals opened a medical office building in March, which was followed this summer by a hospice nearby. Smith and Rawl also are working on the first handful of 27 small-area plans dictating how each section of Chatham Park will take shape, and they expect construction on the first houses to begin in 2017.

They want to establish a template, with others completing the project. “We have our playbook, and we’ll adapt as needed,” Rawl says. “We don’t play every position. We just assemble the players to handle different aspects, like maybe a Highwoods for office buildings or maybe [Raleigh developer] John Kane for mixed retail and residential.”

With none of their children involved at Preston Development, neither Smith nor Rawl plan to slow down or step aside for the foreseeable future. “We want this to be an exemplary project,” Smith says, “and we’re going to make sure it will be.”

Eight thousand acres is about 12½ square miles, about twice the size of Boone and larger than all of the incorporated towns in Chatham County combined, according to IndexMundi, a website of state municipal statistics. The county seat, Pittsboro, is a mere 4 square miles in size, but it sits just west of the 8,000 acres on which developers Tim Smith and Julian “Bubba” Rawl have invested more than $200 million.

Smith and Rawl are launching Chatham Park, which is likely the Triangle’s next boomtown and the largest planned community in North Carolina’s history. When fully built, Chatham Park is expected to have 22,000 homes and 22 million square feet of office and retail space, making it among the largest such developments nationally. An analysis by North Carolina State University estimates it will create 61,000 jobs and an $80 billion impact for Chatham County over 40 years. The developers bet that a chunk of the Triangle’s population growth — likely  to top 500,000 over the next 15 years —   will choose the site 30 miles south of downtown Durham.

“We’re still adding to it,” Rawl says. Property owners on the fringes of their planned Chatham Park continue to approach them about selling their land.

“It’s a hell of a way to go out,” Smith says with a laugh, acknowledging that neither he nor Rawl will likely see Chatham Park through to its completion in 30 to 40 years. Both men are in their mid-60s.

The project is the culmination of more than three decades in real-estate development for the partners, which started in 1983 when Smith called Rawl about buying a piece of land along the Raleigh-Cary border for a car dealership. “I’ve been married to him as long as I have my wife,” Rawl says, recalling that he was on his honeymoon when he first received a message from Smith.

An engineer by training, Smith shapes projects from the lay of the land, while Rawl handles the marketing as the developments rise from the ground. Rawl, a Greenville native, started and sold a sportswear company to Nike before entering real estate. “They are two completely different people who are both super bright and who complement each other,” says Karl Blackley, a 20-year colleague. Smith “sees things into the future,” Blackley says, while Rawl is the details guy, prone to stopping his car on the way to lunch to pick up litter in one of their partnership’s neighborhoods.

After several years of smaller projects, Smith and Rawl landed their first major residential development in 1991. Preston, a Cary golf course community, had been taken over by the federal Resolution Trust Corp. after its owner, a Dallas-based savings and loan, became insolvent. With banks nervous about extending credit in a slumping real-estate market, Smith approached Cary billionaire Jim Goodnight, the co-founder of software giant SAS Institute, about bankrolling the purchase. The two had known each other for more than a decade, with Smith selling Goodnight several parcels of land that became part of SAS’ sprawling corporate campus.

An investor group led by Goodnight paid    $11.2 million for the 1,400-acre development, including Prestonwood Country Club, and Smith and Rawl were catapulted into the big leagues of Triangle real estate just as the market heated up.

With Goodnight acting as what Smith describes as “a very friendly banker,” the team went on to craft upscale neighborhoods throughout Cary, from Wessex in the north to Camden Forest in the south to Cameron Pond in the west. While they handled some commercial projects, creating high-end residential developments and then selling lots to homebuilders became their calling card. They chose Preston Development as the name for their company to recognize the breakthrough deal.

“The quality of their work really sets them apart,” says Tommy Drake, a Raleigh land broker who has helped Smith and Rawl put together projects including Chatham Park. “There’s a consistency in their quality and in their follow-through. Some people walk away from a deal when the going gets tough ­— not these guys.”

Goodnight’s backing has helped them ride the economic waves more smoothly than dealing with commercial banks. Preston is owned 50-50 by Smith and Rawl, who won’t share details about their financial ties to North Carolina’s wealthiest man except that they update him twice a year.

“He understands what we’re doing — the dynamics of the real-estate business — and he sees it as a safe investment,” Smith says. Goodnight declined to respond to questions. “[He] really doesn’t comment on his personal business activities,” SAS spokeswoman Shannon Heath wrote in an email.

Goodnight’s patient investing and Smith’s and Rawl’s ability to time the market has led to tremendous opportunities. Just as they bought the Preston project out of bankruptcy, they grabbed the 2,300-acre Wakefield Plantation site in north Raleigh and part of Cary’s Weston business park in 1996 in a $41.3 million package deal from a KLM Royal Dutch Airlines pension fund. Wakefield had lain fallow for several years, but within three years, Smith and Rawl had obtained needed approvals to tee up a Preston-style project with a Tournament Players Club golf course. They then flipped Wakefield’s residential and commercial sections to different developers, pocketing significant profits. At about the same time, they sold most of Weston to Raleigh-based office developer Highwoods Properties Inc., retaining a small piece later turned into the Weston Estates neighborhood, where homes now sell for $700,000 to $900,000. “Some properties, you need to stay in for a while to see the value. Some you can sell early,” Smith says.

By 2000, when they looked for a new project, the Triangle’s growth that they had helped spur meant there were fewer open tracts. Also, the process of getting zoning and other local approvals had increased from weeks to months. So the pair decided to tackle one large project instead of several smaller ones. “We always try to buy land in the path of growth,” Smith says. With neighborhoods popping up in the Clayton area, growth had already beaten them to Johnston County — their first choice — so they shifted their attention to the west and Chatham County. Although some Cary developments trickle into eastern Chatham County and other subdivisions hug the Orange County line near Chapel Hill, the vast majority of the county remains bucolic, including the area west of Jordan Lake, where forests cover rolling hills that stretch toward Pittsboro. “They’re sort of the forgotten part of this region,” Smith says.

The idea of a development near Pittsboro came to an abrupt halt on Sept. 11, 2001. The terrorist attacks and the uncertainty of the dot-com bust caused Smith and Rawl to focus their efforts elsewhere. “There was such a lack of clarity in the economy that we had to back off,” Rawl says. “This is such a cyclical business that, if you hit it at the wrong time, it can be awful.”

The jittery economy created another buying opportunity. Timber giant Weyerhaeuser wanted to unload its 2,200-acre Landfall golf course community near Wilmington, which was already about 75% developed, and approached Smith and Rawl in early 2002. “With Landfall, we had a known product, so it was safer for us to move on that,” Rawl says. Their work on the coast led them to take over the 1,800-acre Carolina Colours development in New Bern in 2013 and to purchase the 200-slip Southport Marina from the state for $5.25 million earlier this year.

They initially wanted to buy the marina a decade ago when the North Carolina State Ports Authority first solicited bids for the dilapidated boatyard, which needed new capital investment. At that time, the new owner would have had to deal with a marina company holding a long-term operating lease, so Smith and Rawl bought the lessee and, with Goodnight’s backing, put in a bid for the marina.

Amid questions about then-Gov. Mike Easley’s potential influence over the deal, the state took the marina off the market but agreed to a lengthy lease extension. That wasn’t enough to head off an ethics complaint against the governor, who was accused of steering the marina toward political donors — Smith and Rawl had contributed about $14,000 to Easley’s campaigns between 2000 and 2006. The state Ethics Commission later found the allegations to be without merit.

Longtime marina manager Hank Whitley says Smith and Rawl “essentially rebuilt the marina,” replacing everything from the docks to the utilities. “It wasn’t the best time to do it, with the recession, but it had to be done for the marina to succeed,” Whitley says. Plans call for a second boat-storage facility, and Rawl says the marina may enlarge slips to accommodate bigger vessels.

By 2006, Smith and Rawl were ready to take another crack at Chatham County. They snapped up 1,800 acres southeast of Pittsboro from a retired judge, Wade Barber. Other investors had considered establishing a gated golf-course community on the land, similar to Governors Club in Chapel Hill. But those plans never came to fruition.

Smith and Rawl added parcels to their holdings through the 2007-09 recession, viewing the moribund real-estate market as another opportunity for bargain hunting. To date, they have sunk about $200 million into more than 100 tracts, stretching from the crossroads community of Bynum along the Haw River in the north to the southern reaches of Jordan Lake. In June, a Smith-affiliated company bought a nearby 647-acre tract for $4.2 million.

For Pittsboro residents, the growing size of the site Smith and Rawl are assembling has sparked lengthy, spirited opposition. Talk of Pittsboro’s population soaring from 4,000 to 60,000 in little more than a generation has frightened many who envision the loss of the town’s Mayberry-like charm. “We’re going to become a company town, essentially,” says Jeffrey Starkweather, a retired attorney who is a leader of the community group Pittsboro Matters.

The issues were more pragmatic for Bill Terry, who was town manager from 2007-12 and mayor from 2013-15. Limited wastewater capacity prompted Pittsboro’s moratorium on large developments for nearly a decade. To gain some control over Chatham Park’s development, town officials started working in 2007 on an updated land-use plan for areas outside Pittsboro’s limits. But suggestions pushed by a consultant Smith and Rawl hired created friction that lingered for years. “From their point of view, they were offering the town help,” Terry says. “I thought it was interference. They were trying to take over the rewriting of our land-use plan.”

The town rejected the consultant’s recommendations — Terry called it a “paper-thin document” that “required nothing of anybody” — and it was five years before Pittsboro officials approved their own plan. That merely moved the battle lines from land use to zoning, however, as Smith and Rawl sought approval for a “planned development district” that would give them more flexibility in crafting the project.

The distrust many Pittsboro residents had for the developers only grew with time, especially since the master plan submitted by Smith and Rawl painted only with broad strokes and left Pittsboro Matters and other groups demanding more detail. “It was a blank slate,” Starkweather says. “It’s not a plan; it’s just piecemeal. They’ve already changed their minds two or three times as to what they want to do.”

That, Smith says, is precisely the point. “We don’t know what’s going to happen 10, 20 years from now,” he says. “It would be stupid to plan for the next 40 years.” He notes that, if they had started Chatham Park at the turn of the century, it likely would now include three golf courses. Instead, none is planned for the community because, he says, “millennials don’t join country clubs.”

Rawl expects millennials to flock to the live-work-play model envisioned by Preston Development, including a brewpub, urban village, new schools, medical offices and office properties. “Many of the country’s finest restaurants [are] coming.”

Following their initial master plan, Smith and Rawl have submitted information on 12 “elements” for the project, including guidelines for stormwater management, landscaping, affordable housing and transit. “You don’t get credit for doing what’s required, so we’re stepping way past the requirements here,” Rawl says. One example: Preston Development plans to nearly double the amount of open space called for in the master plan.

The track record of Smith and Rawl should give them more leeway in designing a community, says Russell Killen, who as mayor of Knightdale worked with Preston on a 300-acre mixed-use project in the east Wake County town. “Tim and Bubba are just visionary guys,” says Killen, an attorney with Parker Poe Adams & Bernstein LLP in Raleigh. “They have really been able to see where things should go, not just where things are going, and then getting ahead of the curve.”

Meetings of Pittsboro’s Planning Board and Board of Commissioners became crowded, tense affairs, with people for and against Chatham Park facing off. “It was one of those issues that split the county,” Terry says. Some residents see the project as an economic boon — added tax base and new jobs — while others anticipate traffic congestion and environmental problems. “Every inch of the way brought sparks,” he says.

Despite the Triangle’s notorious traffic congestion, the new U.S. 64 bypass around Pittsboro and other road improvements attracted Chatham Park’s developers. “The new 540 turnpike road provides us with a great conduit into the RTP and the airport,” Rawl says. “You can drive from our new bridge/interchange location to the airport in around 25 minutes, downtown Chapel Hill in 15 minutes, and Durham, 25 to 30.”

Starkweather accused the developers of trying to “bully the town” by suggesting they would create their own municipality if Pittsboro didn’t cooperate. While they explored the idea of creating Chatham Park as its own town, “Pittsboro was hands down the best route for us,” Rawl says.

Smith and Rawl have never experienced as much opposition to one of their projects, including a headline in an environmental newsletter noting, “Meet Preston Development, They Want to Cut Down Your Forests.” The vitriol hurts, their colleague Blackley says, “but I don’t think they took it personally. We’ve been called a lot of things, but we know who we are. We know our values and ethics.”

Smith and Rawl say the project will reflect desires of area residents. Because a survey showed locals were most concerned about high-speed internet access, gigabit broadband is planned for residential areas,  while commercial areas will get 10 gigs. A solar farm will power some homes, charging stations for electric cars will be included in garages and parking lots, smart meters will monitor natural gas and electricity use, and purple pipe will be laid to recirculate partially treated wastewater for landscaping purposes. Miles of trails will link neighborhoods to parks, soccer fields, the banks of the Haw River and the western shore of Jordan Lake. “Consumers sort of demand these things now, and meeting those demands is what we’re all about,” Rawl says.

The Pittsboro Board of Commissioners voted 4-1 in June 2014 to approve Chatham Park’s master plan, but the battle still rages. Pittsboro Matters has repeatedly sued the town over the approval process, and while courts have ruled against the group at every turn, Starkweather vows continued appeals. “We’ve seen what happens when we allow developments like this: sprawl, pollution, a lower quality of life,” he says.

Mayor Cindy Perry, who succeeded Terry in 2015, created a committee to guide developers on issues such as public art and affordable housing. Recognizing that the Triangle’s growth is inevitable, Perry says she prefers the “unified project” offered by Smith and Rawl versus dealing with a patchwork of developments. “It’s clear they’ve done their homework,” she says. “They know what’s worked and what to tweak to fit with who we are and where we are.”

The scale of Chatham Park also has enough heft to kick-start plans for expanding the town’s wastewater treatment capacity, Perry adds. Terry calls the wastewater issue “an absolute chokepoint” for the project, noting it will take several years for a new treatment plant to be designed, permitted and built. But he says that will give Pittsboro more time to work with Smith and Rawl to plan for development. “There was a sense of urgency at first — a monolith was coming,” he says. “But the more people realize we have time to address issues, the less panicked they are about it.”

Still, development is moving forward. UNC Hospitals opened a medical office building in March, which was followed this summer by a hospice nearby. Smith and Rawl also are working on the first handful of 27 small-area plans dictating how each section of Chatham Park will take shape, and they expect construction on the first houses to begin in 2017.

They want to establish a template, with others completing the project. “We have our playbook, and we’ll adapt as needed,” Rawl says. “We don’t play every position. We just assemble the players to handle different aspects, like maybe a Highwoods for office buildings or maybe [Raleigh developer] John Kane for mixed retail and residential.”

With none of their children involved at Preston Development, neither Smith nor Rawl plan to slow down or step aside for the foreseeable future. “We want this to be an exemplary project,” Smith says, “and we’re going to make sure it will be.”

Recommended Posts
Contact Us

Questions or feedback? Drop us a message!

Start typing and press Enter to search

35 business events