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Cullowhee considers development standards

fr wcuCullowhee is awash in new developments. Specifically, the community is buzzing with the construction of high-density developments aimed at housing Western Carolina University’s growing student population. 


One such development, 808 West, presents itself as “contemporary,” “cool,” “luxurious” and “ultramodern.” The development is currently embarking on Phase II, an addition of two new apartment buildings — featuring one-, three- and four-bedroom units — and a two-story clubhouse.

“They’ve graded up to this single-family yard,” said Jackson County Planning Director Gerald Green. “That’s an interesting contrast in land uses.”

Currently, there are no rules on the books governing development in Cullowhee. There are no standards to address such “an interesting contrast in land uses.” That could soon change.

Huddled in a small meeting room on the Southwestern Community College campus, the Cullowhee Community Planning Advisory Committee recently got a look at development standards being considered for the fastest-growing area of Jackson County. 

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“Everybody take this copy home and mark it up,” committee Chairman Scott Baker told the group as they skimmed through 30-plus pages of possible standards. 

That’s light reading compared to what an eventual ordinance outlining such standards for Cullowhee might look like. 

“This ordinance will probably be 100 pages,” predicted Green. “There’ s two reasons for that. One, is to keep it clear. Two, is to avoid hiring lawyers.”

The proposals being considered outline zones, permissible uses and building standards for Cullowhee. County officials jumpstarted the planning advisory board in an effort to address concerns about unregulated growth in the area. 

“It almost takes my breath, the amount of changes,” noted committee member Myrtle Schrader.

It is hoped that regulations will better guide future growth within the Cullowhee community. After members sign off on the proposed standards, the regulations will need to be approved by county commissioners. 

The proposals being considered by the committee split Cullowhee into six types of zones. Each zone has permitted and restricted uses and development standards. The zones are commercial, institutional, and various levels of residential. 

Developments in areas zoned as commercial have by far the most leeway. The only type of development not allowed — with the exception, specifically noted, of establishments geared toward adult uses, such as video gambling venues — would be detached single-family dwellings. The commercial areas would be the only place for gas stations, retail outlets, restaurants, fruit and vegetable markets and most other establishments outside the bounds of residential zones or the narrow institutional zone.  

Areas zoned as institutional would have more restrictions. Businesses — such as a bakery, a carwash or a florist — would not be allowed to locate here. Other ventures — like a pharmacy, a doctor’s office or financial institution — would be allowed. 

The residential zones are divided up into density levels. There is a proposed high- and medium-density level for multi-family residential, as well as a single-family residential and low-density townhome residential. 

On the higher end, the multi-family high-density zone would allow 16 bedrooms per acre. Developments would be allowed to build to a height of 40 feet, and possibly up to 80 feet if additional setback requirements are met. 

The low-density multi-family residential zones would allow 12 bedrooms per acre for apartments, eight units per acre for townhomes and four homes per acre for single-family units. The height allowances would be the same as in the higher density zone. 

The townhome zone is much the same as the medium density multi-family zone, with the exception of allowing for apartments; there is also no option to increase height allowances to 80 feet. The single-family residential zone is the most restrictive. Aside from houses, the zone allows for few other uses, among them churches and community centers, greenways and golf courses. 

The committee is considering a requirement for all zones that a sidewalk be required along all road frontages. Also for all zones, if a property contains a portion of the route laid out in Jackson County’s Greenway Master Plan, an easement for the greenway must be dedicated to the county. Open space requirements are also the same across the board — at 10 percent — except for single-family residential, where there is a deferment to subdivision ordinances. 

The development standards currently being considered for Cullowhee were arrived at through a community input process stretching back to last summer. The process was spurred by a concern that the area was developing too rapidly and too much to forgo regulations any longer. 

During the Cullowhee planning committee’s recent meeting, members discussed WCU’s growth and how it has triggered a flurry of developments aimed at housing the student population. 

“The student apartments have gotten the lead, the advantage, they’re everywhere,” said Green. 

Committee members discussed how some developers were hitching their ventures to the university’s growth without fully researching the prospects. 

“Another one that has already purchased property has never talked to Western,” member Rick Bennett told the group. 

“They were shocked that that is all they are growing,” Green said, explaining that WCU enrollment numbers might not fulfill the dreams dancing in the eyes of developers. “So, they didn’t do their homework at all.” 

Committee member Mark Lord, a professor at WCU, asked if future developments — such as another high-density student housing development — would be approved on a per-project basis or summarily green-lighted if they meet zoning requirements.

“Are they automatically permitted to do it?” Lord asked.

“The market dictates that,” Green said, explaining that developments could not be denied based on community need or want. “All we can dictate is where things can go and certain design standards.”

The proposed zones and regulations are currently free-floating. They have not been overlaid or assigned to specific areas within Cullowhee.

“Not yet, that’s our next step,” Green said, explaining that various factors — such as existing roads and services, as well as natural terrain — would need to be taken into consideration when applying the development standards. 

During its recent meeting, Lord pointed out that an area’s proximity to the Tuckaseigee Water and Sewer Authority’s service area would play a role in determining appropriate zoning.

“Which is actually a good reason not to [expand] TWSA, if you want low-housing density,” Lord said. 

“Don’t disagree,” added Bennett.

Once the Cullowhee advisory committee approves the proposed development standards, the group will then host a public meeting to gauge the community’s appetite for such regulations. The process could stop there.

“If there’s no support for them, I imagine we’ll just drop them,” said Green, predicting a “variety of responses” from the public.

If the proposed standards are well received, they will travel on to the county level. First the proposals will go before the planning board — where Green expects “no substantial changes” will be made — and then to the commissioners.

“What kind of timeline are we on?” Bennett asked during the recent committee meeting.

“I’d like to get it done by mid-summer,” Green said. 

The next advisory committee meeting is tentatively scheduled for noon on May 7 at the Jackson County Recreation Center in Cullowhee. 

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