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Cullowhee proposals in for a tweaking

fr cullowheeThey weren’t thrilled about it, but members of the Cullowhee community did show an appetite for possible development standards during a recent second public input session focusing on the proposed regulations.

“This is not a pretty plan, there are parts of it I find very disturbing,” said Jim Lewis, during the Oct. 23 meeting. “But if not this, what? Just let us go?”

For the past year, the Cullowhee Community Planning Advisory Committee has worked towards a set of potential development standards for the fast-growing home of Western Carolina University. Currently, the area’s growth is held to no regulations; the proposed standards address zoning and more.

Lewis has a front row seat to Cullowhee’s anything-goes development scene. The 40-year resident has recently found himself living near a new apartment complex brimming with WCU students. 

“All I have to do is open my windows at night and I hear them,” Lewis groaned during the forum.

The man is not a fan of the area’s proliferation of student apartment complexes — “these apartments are trash as far as I’m concerned.” But he also doesn’t relish Jackson County slapping rules on private property — “maybe people that don’t want their land in this, just pull’em out.”

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Ultimately, though, the Cullowhee resident thinks something needs to be done. Before it’s too late and Cullowhee is crushed by its own growth. 

“How many students can we put in this valley?” Lewis asked rhetorically. “Twenty thousand?”

Jackson County Planning Director Gerald Green had made a similar pitch earlier in the public forum, when he urged people to take hold of their community’s growth via zoning designations and development regulations. 

“Who’s making decisions for the community now? I think that is a big question,” Green said. “The people who make the decisions now are the apartment complexes, the DOT and the university.”

 Green had explained how the status quo was not advisable, how WCU’s growth was taxing the local community and infrastructure without any tools in place to correct the current course. He had explained how the proposed standards were aimed at protecting single-family residential areas while requiring significant development to conduct an impact analysis study and contribute to infrastructure improvements accordingly.

The planning director had explained all this at the initial Oct. 7 public forum. But this time, Green was finding a somewhat more receptive audience — not entirely enthusiastic, but resolved to the reality.

“At least when we figure out what’s what we actually prevent things like an apartment complex going up without having to make any improvements,” said David Claxton. “There are no rules right now. And I don’t know any other way we’re going to get rules in place unless we have some planning.”

The second forum, held again on the WCU campus, seemed to have a more accommodating vibe than the first. Voices of support — virtually silent before — speckled the crowd.

But there were also people present at the input session who were decidedly against adopting development standards, people who were opposed in both philosophy and practice.

These were the people that raised property rights concerns last time, the people that are worried new regulations could stifle what they are allowed to do with their long-time land. These are the people who feel outsiders are telling them what they can do with their land, and the people who dubbed Green a “carpetbagging government thug.” 

“I’m just tickled to death that my land’s about to be made useless,” said Caroline Lewis at the most recent meeting.

Green started off the second meeting by addressing such concerns. He stressed that single-family dwellings would face minimal limitations — held namely to the rule that the land could not be sold and used for a purpose outside the designation; i.e., a student-housing developer could not buy someone’s single-family acreage and expect to develop without first securing a zoning change or variance to the standards. 

The planning director also assured the attendees that the members of Cullowhee’s planning committee — including himself — are also members of the community. There were no outsiders, he told them.

“It’s not anybody from outside the Cullowhee planning area that has come in to try to make changes to your property or your business,” Green told them. “They’re already in the community.”

A consistent theme among those voicing reservations was the fear that designating property as residential would limit its future use and profitability. One man pointed out that much of the color-coded map displaying Cullowhee’s proposed zones was residential-heavy.

“It looks to me like 80 percent of the map is single-family dwelling,” the man said.

“To some extent that was the default,” Green replied, conceding that the zoning was up for discussion.

Among the voices opposed to the proposed development standards was Donnie Allen, a Cullowhee resident whose family lives on a large tract of property that has been in the family for more than a century. There was also a man who said the uncertainty about the standards was stalling out his land-selling business — “I think the sooner we get this thing resolved, the sooner we can get back to making some money” — and a woman who expressed concerns over her ability to profitably use her property.

And then there was Mike Clark. The Cullowhee property owner has long railed against the standards being proposed for Cullowhee. He was also a member of the Cullowhee Community Planning Advisory Committee until Oct. 20, when he resigned. 

“I think a lot of these things that Gerald has mentioned can be remedied without taking our property rights,” Clark said during the public forum, a few days after his resignation. 

In his resignation letter to Jackson County, Clark described the proposed standards as being “unconstitutional” and discriminatory against the poor. He said that the proposed “method for acquiring private property for the construction of a county walkway is illegal.” 

“This initiative started out on the right foot several years ago with a group of people working from the bottom up trying to incorporate a small area,” Clark concludes in the letter. “It was then hijacked by a group of government thugs who want to force city zoning and standards on a large unincorporated rural area.”

During the forum, Clark accused the county of developing the standards with the end goal of benefiting WCU. He also accused the advisory committee of being packed with yes-men, simply rubber-stamping the county’s wishes.

“I think I was the only one on that committee that wasn’t like this the whole time,” Clark said, nodding his head up and down in an exaggerated fashion.

“I can refute that immediately,” countered advisory committee Chairman Scott Baker, who was also in attendance.

While there was certainly a faction of people present during the second input session opposed to the notion of Cullowhee adopting development standards, there also seemed to be a recognition by others that the community has reached a point at which it is demanding regulations.

“We do need something,” said Frances Mincey. “Or we’re going to sit here and people are going to come in here and destroy it.”

Green said that he will now take the community’s input back to the drawing board. And there will likely be changes made.

“Some tweaking of the standards,” Green said.

In November, the Cullowhee advisory committee will be considering various changes to the proposed standards based on the information gathered during this month’s public input sessions. Some properties — primarily parcels neighboring the North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching — will be withdrawn from the planning area entirely, while other areas will be targeted for zoning changes.

Green said that he will be meeting with members of the Cullowhee community who have voiced concerns about the proposed standards in an effort to see if their concerns might be addressed.

“I’m imagining there will be some revisions to the standards and the maps,” Green said.

The county will also likely send out a letter to residents and property owners within the proposed Cullowhee planning area. The letter will offer the opportunity to respond, lodging support or disapproval of the proposals.

After that, there will follow more committee considerations, further public hearings. Eventually, the proposed standards and zones may find themselves before the planning board, then perhaps the Jackson County Commissioners for a final up or down vote.

Or, maybe not.

“The committee may decide to just drop it all,” Green mused. “Who knows.”

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