North Carolina's population is projected to double by 2035, moving from the 11th largest state to the sixth or seventh largest state. Chatham County, where I live, is expected to leap from 60,000 in 2008 to at least 120,000 by or before 2035. Perhaps there will be much faster growth, depending on economic conditions and the response of local government.
When I arrived here in late 2006, there was talk that Chatham could become "the new Cary-Apex," which grew from a few thousand people in 1968 to more than 120,000 in 2008.
The notion that the semi-rural character of parts of North Carolina, and Chatham County could be destroyed is not welcome to my wife and me. We were lured here by the sharp contrast to the high-traffic nightmare and relatively high crime rate of the Washington, DC metro area. The idea that Chatham's population density might reach Cary's, with the inevitable crime, urban sprawl, malls, and tens of thousands of newcomers does not appeal at all.
We know we've found a good thing. After moving to the North Carolina Triangle in 2005, we shopped around for more than a year before settling on Chatham County, where we found we could get far more bang for our real estate bucks than in Chapel Hill or Raleigh.
As relative newcomers ourselves, we can't exactly push for the county gates be closed now that we've arrived.
I actually wouldn't mind a little more hustle and bustle in Chatham County, and don't fear some of the proposed development, such as an upscale grocery store (Whole Foods?) at Fearrington Place. I note that the moratorium on residential development in the county has been extended to December, 2008, to give the county water system and schools a chance to catch up in the residential developments now underway.
I think we could have the best of both worlds -- village atmosphere, small-town and semi-rural setting, enjoyment of nature, sense of place with roots, along with semi-urban opportunities nearby. And if we the citizens participate, we can help shape the character and sense of place for the future.
I am particularly intrigued by the idea of a Pittsboro-to-Chapel Hill bus route, which has been discussed on the Chatham Chatlist, and garnered more than 220 signatures on a petition. The Daily Tar Heel editorialized in favor of it:
Between skyrocketing gas prices and increasingly difficult parking situations in Chapel Hill, we think that a public transit line would be heavily used and would soon become well worth it. In addition, it's possible that Pittsboro could receive some federal funding for the bus line.
"Chatham Character: Rustic Beauty Key to Chatham's Charm" by Daneille Jackson in Fifteen501.com magazine describes some of the challenges of growth and developments under way or in the works, including a miniature Research Triangle Park. It's well worth a read.
Most of all, Chatham County needs to preserve and promote its unique character. I hate the idea of it being overtaken by suburban sprawl that will make it look like everywhere else in the country.
Having a special sense of place is a highly marketable commodity for a county. Travel writer Robert Nebel offered his take on Fearrington Village, the Silk Home Winery, Durham barbeque, and Downtown Raleigh in The Chattanoogan.com and MensTraveler.com. I also like his travel blog, focusing mainly on places in the Southeastern U.S.
What do you think of Chatham County's growth and how would you like to see it managed?
Update: Thanks to Gene Galin, administrator of the Chatham County Bulletin Board, my little essay above has sparked (so far) more than 25 responses.
A few hostile comments, apparently in reference to buzz words I used that are "hot" locally -- "newcomer"; "upscale grocery store (Whole Foods?)," indicating that I live in the eastern part of the county, expressing a concern for "preserving the semi-rural setting" and avoiding "suburban sprawl" -- makes me wonder if I've unwittingly stepped into a hornet's nest. As Julian Sereno pointed out in a well-written piece in the Chatham County Line, "Chatham Is Divided: There's a history to east-west tensions in the county."