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Cullowhee development standards have been drawn up; will the community buy-in?

Cullowhee is the fastest growing area of Jackson County. The growth owes much to Western Carolina University and is evidenced in recent years by a surge in private student housing complexes and smattering of bars.

Without regulations in place, Cullowhee’s growth has taken place in a Wild West, cowboy environment. For more than a year, the Cullowhee Community Planning Advisory Committee has contemplated how to guide such growth.


“Everyone that comes in here wants to do their own thing and eventually that affects the quality of the community,” said Rick Bennett, a member of the advisory committee and resident of Cullowhee.

Through the committee’s work, involving multiple public input sessions in addition to regular meetings, a set of potential development standards has been created. The plan lays out various districts, separating Cullowhee into degrees of residential, commercial and institutional. Standards cover things like sidewalks, landscaping, architecture, signs and more. There’s also a provision requiring developers to conduct an impact analysis.

This month, Jackson County Planning Director Gerald Green took task force members on a field trip to get an up close look of how the proposed development standards would play out on the ground. They toured Cullowhee and were able to consider how the area jived with the proposed standards and multi-colored map detailing proposed zoning districts that one day might be.

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“It was good,” Green relayed. “Got a good lay of the land.”

Next up are more public input meetings. Now that the advisory committee has cobbled together potential development standards, it’s time to find out what the Cullowhee community thinks about them. 

The first public meeting is scheduled for Oct. 7, with a second slated for Oct. 23. Green isn’t sure what to expect.

“I have no idea,” the planner said. 

Whatever the public reaction is to these proposed standards, it will apparently carry some weight. The advisory board will base its next move on the public’s input. 

“That would be to move forward with the way everything is, or revise them based on the reaction of the community,” Green said, suggesting that the public input could even dictate “whether to proceed or not.”

Arnold Ashe, owner of the Cullowhee Café, will be getting his first look at the proposed development standards during the upcoming public meetings. He’s actually on the planning committee — appointed by Jackson County Commissioner Charles Elders — but has never been to any of the task force meetings.

“I haven’t been to any of the meetings, period. I’m not too in to this political stuff,” Ashe said. “I’m not real negative. I’m open. I’m just not into politics.”

A couple of years ago, there was an incident near the Cullowhee Café that presented a useful argument for some zoning regulations in the unincorporated area. Two decrepit trailers were hauled into the middle of what would be considered Cullowhee’s business district and deposited near the café.

“Nothing could be done about that,” Ashe said. “I had to spend $1,500 and plant shrubbery and try to hide it. He got to do what he wants and he lives in Miami.”

That incident occurred as the Cullowhee planning discussions were in their infancy. Just as a group of residents and business owners were preparing to begin talking with Green and Jackson County. About a year later the advisory committee was formed. 

If the committee’s work is embraced by the Cullowhee community during this month’s public meetings, the proposed development standards will continue their long journey towards possible realization. After the committee incorporates the public input it will conduct another public meeting, probably in December. From there, the proposed standards will be passed to the Jackson County Planning Board. They will be considered, then face a public hearing, possibly by February. Sometime in the spring, the proposed standards might make their way before the Jackson County Commissioners, who have the final say.

“We still have quite a ways to go, even optimistically,” Green said. 


Mapping out the future

If the multi-colored map divvying Cullowhee up into different districts looks less like an attempt to engineer future growth and more like a reflection of the current going-ons, it’s because it pretty much is.

In drawing up the proposed zoning districts, the Cullowhee Community Planning Advisory Board and Jackson County Planning Director Gerald Green tried to work with Cullowhee as it has evolved without zoning regulations.

“What we tried to do to a large extent was make everything conforming and not create non-conforming use in Cullowhee,” Green explained. 

In areas where commercial developments already existed, the advisory board has designated them commercial. In parts of Cullowhee with residential units, the map denotes varying degrees of residential, each with its own allowances and regulations.

Unlike the potential zoning districts — which should feel somewhat familiar and comfortable — the proposed development standards being put forth by the Cullowhee advisory committee are entirely new. Unincorporated Cullowhee has never been held to development standards.

Here’s a brief look at some of the proposed standards. The entire Cullowhee Community Planning Area Proposed Draft Development Standards are available for viewing at

Stormwater Management

New developments will be required to better deal with runoff and flooding generated by impervious surfaces. Developments will be required to have a stormwater management system plan, and will need to manage stormwater in order to protect water quality and natural ecosystems by the filtering of sediments and pollutants such as nitrogen, phosphorus, trace metals, and hydrocarbons.

Traffic impact analysis

New developments which meet certain traffic-generating thresholds will be required to conduct a traffic impact analysis. Such a study will indicate a proposed development’s impact on traffic and the added stress to infrastructure. If a development is determined to impact traffic, pedestrian or vehicular, the developer may be required to mitigate such impact — this can range from paying for actual road construction to changes to traffic signals.

Planned developments

Planned developments must obtain a conditional use permit. The minimum lot size for a planned development would be one acre. The maximum allowable building height would be 40 feet, unless the county planning board green lights a project for up to 80 feet. A sidewalk would be required to be installed along all streets abutting a planned development. A minimum of 15 percent of the total land area of a planned development would need to be set aside as open space. 

Architecture standards

Buildings will be held to certain standards. This is meant to “allow creativity and diversity of design,” as well as “protect property values and neighborhood quality, and provide a safe and attractive environment for residents and visitor alike.” In commercial districts, no buildings will be allowed to be covered with corrugated metal or vinyl siding. Regulations governing exteriors and architectural accents are laid out. Color schemes are touched upon.


The proposed development standards also address signage. A permit will be required to erect a sign, and the signage will be required to adhere to specific standards. This is meant to promote uniformity, “minimize undue distraction” and ensure that signs do not  “unduly detract from the aesthetics and natural appeal of the Cullowhee “Planning Area”



Want to go?

Two community meetings are on the calendar for the Cullowhee community to assess the proposed development standards and zoning districts for the Cullowhee Community Planning Area. The first meeting is Oct. 7, with another Oct. 23. Both meetings begin at 6 p.m. in the hospitality room at Western Carolina University’s Ramsey Center.

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