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Wednesday, 17 May 2017 14:33

South Painter Road development approved

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A Georgia developer hoping to build a 388-bed student housing complex in Cullowhee has cleared two of three major hurdles to starting construction.

During its May 11 meeting, the Jackson County Planning Board found that the development met the county’s standards for major subdivisions, and county commissioners voted May 15 to sell the developer a sewer and stormwater easement passing through the Cullowhee Community Garden, as well as a triangular 0.19-acre piece of property adjoining the main parcel, for $35,000.

All that remains is for the developer, Mallory & Evans, to secure approval from the Cullowhee Planning Council at its June 12 meeting. However, doing so will require them to meet a higher standard than was necessary when coming before either the commissioners or the planning board. Commissioners were making a decision about a real estate offer, and while their decision does affect the development, it wasn’t necessarily a reflection of individual commissioners’ positions on the issue. And the planning board had to make its decision based on a subdivision ordinance that applies countywide and whose requirements the development was found to meet. 

The Cullowhee Planning Council, however, will have to grant a special use permit for the development to move forward. The property, located at 66 South Painter Road, is within the Cullowhee Community Planning Area and zoned as townhome residential. The zoning ordinance requires that developments in this district receive a special use permit from the planning council if they are to have more than 40 units. The proposed development would have 97 units. The planning council will have to consider a variety of issues in a quasi-judicial hearing before deciding whether to approve the request. Approval would require the planning council to conclude that the development won’t create a traffic hazard, endanger public safety or injure the value of adjoining properties, among other considerations. 

It’s safe to say that there has been public concern along those lines, especially when it comes to traffic. Narrow and winding South Painter Road just isn’t equipped to handle 400 more cars on the road, opponents say. They point to the 2016 hit-and-run death of pedestrian Daniel Brown on nearby Ledbetter Road, an incident that sparked widespread concern about the area’s safety as new student housing developments continue to spring up. 

“I’ve heard more about this project from my clients than I have about any other project,” planning board member Julie Painter, who is a hair stylist, said in the May 11 meeting. 

“It’s an extremely dangerous situation,” area resident Mike Doppke told commissioners May 15. “The roads aren’t wide, the turns are narrow, and I think putting construction vehicles down through that road is dangerous … I don’t think a week goes by where as I’m driving to and from work every day I don’t have to avoid someone crossing the yellow line, and putting 400 cars on the road is just going to increase that.”

Both commissioners and planning board members seemed aware of the concerns, and several of them seemed to share those concerns. However, both boards voted to approve the requests, concluding that it was the Cullowhee Planning Council’s job to weigh out issues such as impacts to traffic and community character. 

“When the board established the Cullowhee Planning Area, you transferred certain processes and decision-making authority to the Cullowhee Planning Council,” Planning Director Mike Poston told commissioners May 15. 

Commissioner Boyce Dietz, who had voiced concern about the project earlier in the meeting, appeared to be convinced by this perspective. 

“Being that this board has put the power in that planning board to do what they do, and they’re more on top if it there than us, we should just vote to give them (the developer) an easement or not and leave it up to the planning board?” he posited.

While the planning board agreed unanimously that the proposed development met the subdivision standards, commissioners’ decision to approve the easement and land sale was not unanimous. Chairman Brian McMahan voted no to both requests. 

“I felt like that after evaluating the impact that this development will have on that community that a vote for the easement, a vote for selling that parcel to the developer to use for the development is a vote in favor of adding 400 cars to that road, and I think the community is very clear that that’s a problem,” McMahan said in a follow-up interview. 

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