Jackson takes another step toward controlling Cullowhee growth
The latest development to throw down a stake in Cullowhee intends to build a 488-bed student housing complex on a two-lane stretch of road across from the community garden and near the Tuckasegee River.
It’s a place where students can “thrive” while enjoying “a much more robust amenity package.”
“We’re building a resort for college kids,” said Monarch Ventures CEO Shannon King.
Picture swank, picture posh. Imagine tanning beds and a sand volleyball court.
“We’re super excited to be a part of that town and that community,” King said from Charlotte, where Monarch Ventures is located.
Jackson County Planning Director Gerald Green seems less excited. He’s concerned that the Monarch development is going into an area with small roads and an already dense existing and in-process student housing market.
“This density of development served by narrow, windy roads with no alternate modes to serve pedestrians and bikers concerns me,” Green said.
He may also still be a little ticked that Monarch recently slipped in just under the wire — “the Friday before” — when the county expanded its subdivision ordinance to include student housing developments.
“I think they knew,” Green said, noting that Monarch has dodged some requirements now on the books. “They would have had to have had adequate parking, landscaping, stormwater management, more open space.”
King laughs at that notion.
“I wish I had that capacity,” the CEO said. “My clairvoyant skills are not there.”
A reasonable request
The recent expansion of Jackson’s subdivision ordinance was a move meant to address the increased number of student-housing developments serving Western Carolina University. Similarly, the county is now exploring an ordinance that would require prospective developments to submit an impact statement.
Both measures have flowed from the Cullowhee Community Planning Advisory Committee, which is currently looking at the potential for both a community vision and zoning regulations in Cullowhee.
“The main concern of the folks who live in the area is the ongoing development that is not based on the drive or need for that development,” said Scott Baker, who chairs the Cullowhee advisory board.
Recently, the Jackson County Planning Board directed Green to begin looking into drafting an impact-statement ordinance. The board wants to address issues surrounding new housing developments, such as transportation, parking, sewer access and landscaping.
“So, that ordinance would then require the developer to conduct that impact analysis?” planning board member Sarah Graham asked Green during a recent meeting. “That sounds reasonable.”
Monarch’s King also thinks such a proposed impact statement sounds reasonable. She referred to such a proposal as “very basic” and “a very positive thing.”
“The more refined and clear the vision of a community is, the easier it is for developers to design a community that everyone will be happy with,” King said.
Not that she thinks Monarch would have any trouble with an impact study or adhering to rules laid out in the county’s subdivision ordinance. It’s high-end, after all.
“Quite frankly, the standard of housing we’re bringing to Cullowhee will change the face of student housing,” Kind said.
Regulations and saturations
Monarch, like the student-housing developments before it, came to Cullowhee for the obvious reasons.
“It’s a growing university. It’s one of the schools in North Carolina that still has land,” King said. “Most of the national competitors are not there yet.”
WCU is growing. On the surface, its enrollment numbers keep edging toward 10,000. But when distance learners — computer-based students in no need of housing — are peeled off, the residential number hovers just below 8,000. That’s according to the most recent data available from 2012.
But the university is also adding its own housing. By August 2016, the school plans to add between 250 and 350 beds as part of an on-campus mixed-use development. There are also plans to add an additional 300 beds to the Buchanan Residence Hall by 2017. WCU leaders are also considering a requirement that sophomores, in addition to freshmen, must live on campus.
Green feels the housing market is reaching the point of saturation. He thinks developers are overreaching. And that’s something an impact statement can’t address.
“We can’t regulate the marketplace,” Green explained to the planning board. “If I came into a town and there are 100 hotdog places for 200 residents, this board couldn’t stop me from building the 101st hotdog stand.”
But the planner said he also thought the market would correct itself, that the saturation would slow development around WCU. Monarch may be it for a while.
“I think the market is so saturated now that not even a fool would propose another multi-family development in Cullowhee,” Green said.
When the next development does step into Cullowhee, or anywhere in Jackson County for that matter, it will have to adhere to requirements laid out in the subdivision ordinance and may soon need to submit an impact statement prior to proceeding.
Such measures should be viewed within the context of the overall community planning efforts stemming from Cullowhee. Eventually, county commissioners could decide to formally guide growth in the currently unregulated community via zoning regulations. Until then, small steps like the expansion of the subdivision ordinance or the call for impact statements will attempt to accomplish the same.
“I think that’s how the community planning council is looking at this — how do you tie all this together?” Green said.
WCU adds residential capacity, eyes sophomores
Western Carolina University is planning to add up to 650 student beds. And perhaps as soon as the fall semester, sophomores may be required to join freshmen living on campus.
“We are considering requiring sophomores to live on campus, in part because research has shown that an additional year of living on campus can help ensure academic success through closer proximity to classrooms, labs and other support services, which helps the university with its retention rate and keeps the student on track to graduate in four years,” said Sam Miller, vice chancellor for student affairs.
But there’s also another reason. WCU needs to put heads in beds.
“To be honest, we also must be sure that we have a sufficient residential population to enable us to meet our own financial obligations and to pay the debt service on the bonds used to build our new residence halls,” Miller explained.