Cullowhee community expresses reservations about planning at public forum
Up to now, the mood at many of the Cullowhee planning meetings and public forums was upbeat and positive — full of rah-rah and optimism.
Occasionally a naysayer would need to be hushed — Cullowhee property owner Mike Clark has been a consistent and vocal critic — but in general the consensus seemed to be that Cullowhee needs development standards.
The community is the fastest-growing area of Jackson County, yet currently grows ungoverned and unguided. Over the course of the past year, the Cullowhee Community Planning Advisory Committee has been working to realize a tangible vision of what development standards might look like for the area. Proposed regulations have been drafted, various zones denoting residential and commercial areas have been mapped out.
The proposed regulations were recently introduced to the Cullowhee community. And the mood was decidedly different than it’s been at past engagements.
Jackson County Planning Director Gerald Green had been expecting that.
“There may be some different views this time,” Green said a week before the first of two community forums.
The reaction to the proposals during the Oct. 7 forum was not all good vibes and sunshine. It was not a visioning session for what the Cullowhee community should strive to be. People appeared concerned that the pending development standards could potentially pinch their property rights.
“We’ve had it in our family for nearly a hundred years,” one woman told Green at the forum. “I don’t know how you could tell us what we can do with our land.”
They focused on any potentially restrictive aspect of the proposed standards and debated the vey philosophy of implementing regulations in the area. Jackson County officials, as well as the Cullowhee planning committee — comprised of residents and property owners of the community — were painted as meddling outsiders.
“Interesting,” reflected Green a week after the forum. “The first time I’ve ever been called a carpetbagger.”
There was a lot of emotion at the Cullowhee public planning forum held on the Western Carolina University campus. Community members were getting a look at something new, something foreign, and for some, something frightening.
They understood that Cullowhee, in large part due to the growth of the university, is evolving. And they didn’t dispute that it was doing so in a Wild West, regulation-free environment that was resulting in mega-apartment complexes for students plopping down on a country two-lane.
But more than anything, they were concerned about the county dictating what could and could not be done on or with their property, property on which they’ve always done as they please.
“I’ve seen my granddad take his last breath on that property, I’ve seen my cousin die on that property,” said Donald Allen. “What gives you the right to tell us what we can do with our property?”
Allen’s property has been in his family a long time. Cullowhee has grown up around it while the land has remained largely frozen in time — lush acreage, rugged and wild save for a few home sites.
“We got it at the end of the Civil War, 40 acres and a mule,” Allen told Green. “What gives you the right to come in and take our property?”
“We’re not taking your property,” Green assured the man.
40 acres and a healthy suspicion
Allen is in love with his land. The Cullowhee resident was raised on the sprawling acreage. So was his dad, and his dad before him.
“It’s been in our family since the end of the Civil War, my great-great-grandfather got the land,” Allen explained. “It actually ended up being a little more than 40 acres.”
The land was given to Allen’s descendent, a freed slave, as part as the country’s post-war agrarian reform efforts. The property has been handed down ever since.
“You don’t hear about that anymore,” Allen said. “How many black families still have the land they got at the end of the Civil War.”
Allen, as well as his extended family, still reside on the 40 acres in Cullowhee. They live among lifetimes of memories. Memories of hoeing corn fields and raising cattle, of hunting hogs and home cooking.
Allen’s property borders land recently bought by Monarch Ventures, which plans to add about another 500 beds to Cullowhee’s student housing stock with the development of a high-end student apartments. The development will sit where cows once grazed.
“Mr. Higdon use to have cows, too. Every spring the bulls would just get up there and fight,” Allen said, motioning toward the hilltop property line.
Allen’s granddad helped his neighbor build a fence along the hilltop to keep the bulls separated from his own herd. That was before Cullowhee’s evolution kicked into high gear, before WCU’s explosive growth, before the fraternity house across the creek.
“I guess the pressure was too much for him,” Allen said of his former neighbor.
Allen’s new neighbor — Monarch Ventures — will be a force as yet unseen. It will deliver hundreds of students just down the road from his doorstep.
“It’s huge,” Allen said. “I can see potential for problems there big time.”
This is the type of thing that Cullowhee’s proposed development standards address. A project the size of Monarch would have never been allowed to dig into an area full of residential dwellings and surrounded by infrastructure ill-equipped to handle the massive influx of traffic the development will bring.
But still, Allen doesn’t relish the thought of development standards any more than he does the thought of hundreds of rowdy college students just over the hill.
“The local residents here, we just grew up here and lived without much problem. There wasn’t much government in our lives, we were just good country folks allowed to live like we pleased,” Allen said. “Is this freedom? Telling us what we can do on our own property, telling us where we can build, what we can build, is that freedom anymore?”
Residential versus commercial
During the public forum, Green had stressed that residential property owners should not expect to have restrictions placed on their property. The proposed standards, he said, are fairly loose when it comes to residential — property owners can construct duplexes, they can have a bed and breakfast, they can run small businesses and build out-buildings, they can use the property for agricultural purposes or rent it to students.
“We’re trying to be pretty generous with single family,” Green explained later.
One thing that residential property owners could not do? They would be hard pressed to sell their property to an apartment complex developer.
“They would have go through a permitting process,” Green said, adding that re-zoning applications could also be pursued.
That might’ve put a crimp in some of the deals that have gone down in Cullowhee. Property owners, like Allen’s neighbor, could find it much more difficult to make a sale to an ambitious developer.
Luckily, Allen has no intentions of selling his property.
“I can guarantee you we’re not going to put any apartment complexes on this property,” Allen said. “That’s not going to happen.”
Most of the comments expressed during Jackson County’s initial public forum on the proposed Cullowhee development standards pertained to residential properties. But as Green explained during the forum, the standards are more geared toward controlling the growth of apartment complexes and other commercial developments than they are addressing aspects of residential regulations.
“The goal is to protect single-family and allow for additional commercial,” Green said at the forum.
The assurance did little to mellow the mood at the forum.
“Some people didn’t fully understand what we were doing,” Green said after the meeting.
The planning director will try again to impart the plan’s purpose and need at the upcoming second public forum Oct. 23. He intends to write up a Frequently Asked Questions info sheet for people to reference.
The development standards, Green will tell them, are called for due to Cullowhee’s growth. The absence of such standards is causing infrastructure and planning issues.
“If you don’t have any directions, any road will take you there,” Green said at the forum. “And at this point, that’s where we’re going.”
The community’s acceptance of the proposed development standards is key. Without buy-in, the proposals could be scuttled.
“Any further action from this point on must be endorsed by the community,” Green said at the forum. “This is your project and the ball is in your court.”
Allen’s not sure he believes that. Will the county really drop the planning effort if the community balks?
“They’ll tell you what you want to hear,” Allen said.
Green reiterated this week that the fate of Cullowhee planning does indeed rest with its residents and property owners. But how best to accurately gauge the true reaction of the community, which is home to people who both favor and oppose the planning efforts?
“It is challenging to gauge the sentiments at these community meetings,” Green said.
Next time, the planning director plans to make efforts to get an accurate read on the mood.
“I think at the next meeting we’ll ask people to sign petitions,” Green said, “either for or against.”
Allen said he plans to attend the next meeting as well. Plans to let the county know he and his family are decidedly against regulations in Cullowhee.
“I’ll tell you right now,” Allen said, “I’ll fight it to the bitter end.”
Better yet, Allen said, the county should fund a community referendum. At the first meeting the public was told such an option would be prohibitively expensive, but he feels an election would be the surest way to ascertain how the community feels about the prospects of regulations.
“If you really want the true opinion of the people, put it to a vote,” Allen said.
Want to go?
The second public input session on the proposed Cullowhee development standards is scheduled for 6 p.m., Thursday Oct. 23, at Western Carolina University’s Ramsey Center.
The Cullowhee Community Planning Area Proposed Draft Development Standards are available for review at www.jacksonnc.org/planning.