Advocates have called on county leaders for more than a year to endorse a community-driven planning process. This week, Jackson County commissioners agreed to appoint a steering committee to guide and oversee the creation of spot land-use plan.
“This is an idea that is long overdue,” said Robin Lang, a member of CuRvE, a Cullowhee grassroots organization.
The absence of a land-use plan has left Cullowhee vulnerable to unbridled or incompatible development.
Commissioners are taking a cautious, step by step approach to feel out public opinion, however. They have agreed to form a steering committee but won’t commit to actually passing any development regulations or zoning recommendations that emanate from the committee.
The committee’s first step will be creating a boundary for the area included in the community plan. Then it will engage the community in public forums to craft a collective vision for Cullowhee. Lastly, it will draft the nitty gritty details of the locally-tailored zoning and development guidelines.
Even on the fast-track, it could take a year or more before a community land-use plan works its way through the task force, the county planning board and then the board of commissioners for passage.
Even creating the map of the planning area will most likely prove a difficult task. The county has already created a draft boundary, stretching from the airport to the east side of campus, but as landowners try to have their properties excluded from the zone or others asked to be included the task could become a complex jigsaw puzzle.
“There may be people who the board feels are important to include but don’t want to be included,” County Planner Gerald Green said to commissioners at the Monday meeting. “Decisions like this are not always easy. There’s not always a line at the door thanking you for the action you’ll be taking.”
And there’s always the possibility that the idea will be rejected by the majority of property owners in Cullowhee, said County Manager Chuck Wooten.
“There are multiple levels of public input,” Wooten said. “It’s not going to be a simple process; it’s not going to be a quick process.”
The county already has two such local planning districts — one in Cashiers and another along U.S. 441 leading to Cherokee.
Day late and dollar short?
Cullowhee emerged as one of the fastest growing communities in Western North Carolina in the 2010 Census. And that growth has only continued.
In the past year alone developments of all makes and models have shown up on Cullowhee’s doorstep. Either already completed or in some stage of development there have been: two brand-new large-scale student housing complexes, two major additions to student housing complexes, two restaurants/bars, two package stores, a major residential development and a coffee shop.
All have been able to set up shop without the guidance of the laws some would like to see. Green doesn’t believe it’s an intentional building boom to sneak in before possibly stricter laws and restrictions are put in place, but the situation highlights the potential growth in the area and calls for local planning laws to be seriously examined.
“It’s just coincidental, they see the markets,” Green said. “But we’ve missed several opportunities to manage their growth.”
Lang has higher hopes for the community planning process than simply making sure development regulations keep college bars and student apartments from undermining the appearance or character of Cullowhee. Lang said Cullowhee is tethered to the university — too much so. She hopes Cullowhee will grow some wings during the planning process.
“It would be nice to create a town for the full-time tax paying residents and not just students here 9 months of the year,” Lang said.
Instead, the university is not merely a back-drop for life in Cullowhee, but overshadows everything else.
The most recent development to hit the drawing board in Cullowhee is a roughly 400-bed apartment complex, with several three-story buildings, basketball and tennis courts, a pool and a spa to the community. Western Carolina Apartments is a $20 million, 11-acre project planned in the University Heights area along the Tuckasegee River off of Ledbetter Road.
Several community members have already voiced their concerns about the project. A land-use plan could have given the county backing to address the planning concerns.
“That’s one of the benefits of having planning in place, so we don’t get caught flat-footed on stuff like this,” Commissioner Doug Cody said.
That is exactly the point Cullowhee planning proponents have been trying to make to commissioners for the past year.
Specifically, residents have complained about the elevation of the planned apartment complex. The site is in the flood plain. Developers want to fill it in and build a retaining wall about 16 feet high — so it would sit on a sort of earth pedestal.
But the biggest concern for residents is all those students and their cars.
“It’s an accident waiting to happen,” said Susan Bogardus, a resident of who lives in the area.
The president of the development company, Wes Bradley, contends that a traffic study shows the road will be adequate, as most students will use the university shuttle that passes through that section of Cullowhee. He also said landscaping and vegetation will be used to shield the view of the retaining wall from the river.
The timetable is to have the housing project ready for the 2014 fall semester.
“We like the college and think it’s a beautiful area and look forward to being part of the community,” Bradley said. “We really are excited.”
But Bogardus believes potential issues with the project could have been better addressed if Cullowhee were a localized planning district with laws in place. She said the creation of a steering committee is a step towards smart growth and plans to apply for a seat, with a focus on bringing more sidewalks and bike routes to Cullowhee — two things Ledbetter Road is lacking.
“I feel like there needs to be more safe transportation apart from cars,” Bogardus said.
Green said the complaints about the new apartments should not be characterized as anti-development, but rather the people are concerned about specific aspects of the project.
“There not against the apartments, they just want some standards for them,” Green said.
Planning input sought
Anyone wishing to serve on the Cullowhee land-use plan steering committee should apply by the end of the month. A steering committee will likely be appointed at the next commissioner meeting on July 1.