HRA in the News: News and Observer by Adam Wagner – Disney and our Open Letter calling for more environmentally friendly building practices

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Adam Wagner

8–10 minutes

The 1,500-acre Asteria community — part of the company’s Storyliving by Disney brand — will include 4,000 single-family and multifamily homes, including housing aimed at adults ages 55 and older.

The Haw River Assembly is asking Disney and its partners to limit the environmental impacts of the 1,500-acre Chatham County development that will carry the company’s iconic name.

Disney and partner DMB Development are planning to build 4,000 residences across 1,500 acres of the 8,500-acre Chatham Park development that is growing northeast of Pittsboro. Those will include single-family and multi-family homes, as well as some homes for people who are at least 55 years old.

“As you move from concept to development plans for Disney’s Asteria, we urge you to go above and beyond what Chatham Park has codified in their Elements, in order to protect the Haw River and the environment you will be building in,” wrote Haw Riverkeeper Emily Sutton.

Chiosso and Sutton asked Disney to protect the existing tree canopy, build larger stormwater basins than required under Chatham Park’s rules, and work to protect Pittsboro residents — and Asteria’s future residents — from pollution in the region’s drinking water.

“It would be a smart move for Disney to incorporate stakeholder input on the front end, to really understand the landscape and community and the values of this community that they are moving into.,” Sutton said in an interview.

Disney Signature Experiences did not respond to an email seeking comment on the issues raised by the Haw River Assembly letter. Neither did DMB, the Arizona-based developer that Disney has said will manage the construction.

Third-party builders will actually construct the homes, with sales expected to start by 2027. When the project is finished, the development will be branded and managed by Disney.

“The Chatham Park development has gone through a rigorous approval process including both state and local environmental reviews and Asteria will be developed in accordance with these approvals,” Vanessa Jordan, an executive vice president for Preston Development Company, said in an email.

Preston is Chatham Park’s master developer.

The proposed development is still in very early stages. Asteria representatives held a high-level meeting with Pittsboro officials, Colby Sawyer, a town spokesman, told The N&O.

“They have shared all of the information that was contained in their public press release. They conveyed that to us verbally,” Sawyer said, adding that town officials would become more involved when the developers submit site plans.

Here are the concerns raised and how the Haw River Assembly would like to see them addressed.

Preserve the existing tree canopy

Neither Chatham Park nor Disney have publicly disclosed where Asteria will be built. But Sutton is worried about the potential impact if it’s built on 1,500 acres sandwiched between U.S. 64 to the west and the Haw River to the east.

“It’s the most sensitive habitat. It’s a lot of mature growth forest. and so this particular area of the larger Chatham Park development is especially concerning,” Sutton said.

Protecting the tree canopy would help link habitats for species that depend on the forest, said the letter to Disney. It would also help buffer the impacts of climate change by providing shade in hotter summers and helping soak up flood waters.

The Haw River Assembly has long called for additional tree protection for the area Chatham Park wants to develop.

Chatham Park’s development rules call for trees to cover 20% to 25% of residential areas, depending on how many trees are already there, as well as 12% to 15% of non-residential and mixed-use areas.

Pittsboro’s Conservation Ordinance Review Committee previously recommended an ordinance that would require tree canopy to cover 20% to 60% of residential lots depending on their size, 30% of multi-family and commercial lots and 40% of industrial or mixed-use lots.

That’s what Sutton and the Haw River Assembly would like to see at Asteria.

Control stormwater and sediment

Sutton and the Haw River Assembly are closely monitoring sediment pollution in the Haw River basin, especially around Chatham Park.

To Sutton, a key problem is that stormwater basins in Chatham Park have been built to handle what are called 10 year storms, or storms that have a 1-in-10 chance of happening in a given year. That is inadequate, Sutton said, to keep pace with the more frequent heavy rainfalls caused by climate change.

“That sediment isn’t given enough retention time to settle out of the water before it spills over into the neighboring creek. So that’s when we get bright orange streams because that sediment has yet to settle out,” Sutton said.

Between 2018 and 2023, Chatham County’s Watershed Protection Department issued 23 citations to developers associated with Chatham Park’s North Village. Kara Lusk, a county spokeswoman, said 16 of those were related to land disturbance and seven were related to residential construction.

None resulted in civil penalties, Lusk said.

Sutton and the Haw River Assembly would like to see Asteria build stormwater basins that can manage a larger 100-year rainfall, a precipitation event that has a 1-in-100 chance of happening in a given year.

The Haw River Assembly also called on Disney to protect ephemeral streams, or seasonal streams, with buffers. Chatham Park’s existing development rules do not require any buffer for ephemeral streams.

An aerial view of the Chatham Park subdivision in Pittsboro Thursday, Dec. 21, 2023.
An aerial view of the Chatham Park subdivision in Pittsboro Thursday, Dec. 21, 2023. Travis Long

Protect drinking water

Even as it’s grown, Pittsboro has had to deal with contamination coming downstream, particularly hazardous 1,4-dioxane. To address that, Pittsboro agreed last year to merge its water and wastewater system with Sanford, an agreement in which Sanford will supply drinking water to the Chatham County town as soon as late 2026.

Sutton warns, though, that Sanford’s location at the confluence of the Deep and the Haw rivers leaves it vulnerable to both forever chemicals and 1,4-dioxane.

The utility is planning to install granular activated carbon technology that can capture PFAS, but Sutton warned it has no such treatment in place for 1,4-dioxane, a chemical used as industrial solvent that the Environmental Protection Agency has labeled a “probable human carcinogen.”

That’s where Sutton would like the developers to play a role.

“Disney could put pressure on Sanford or contribute funding to Sanford to make sure that the Town of Pittsboro and the people who will move to Asteria are confident that their drinking water isn’t laden with these industrial toxins,” Sutton said.

This story was produced with financial support from the Hartfield Foundation and Green South Foundation, in partnership with Journalism Funding Partners, as part of an independent journalism fellowship program. The N&O maintains full editorial control of the work.

This story was originally published January 25, 2024, 11:54 AM.

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Adam Wagner covers climate change and other environmental issues in North Carolina. His work is produced with financial support from the Hartfield Foundation and Green South Foundation, in partnership with Journalism Funding Partners, as part of an independent journalism fellowship program. Wagner’s previous work at The News & Observer included coverage of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout and North Carolina’s recovery from recent hurricanes. He previously worked at the Wilmington StarNews.

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