Archived Opinion

Give Cullowhee a chance to fulfill potential

op frCullowhee rising. Sounds like a fitting name for some aspiring college band, but it best describes what’s happening at Western Carolina University and the community surrounding it. It’s one of the fastest growing places in the region whose potential is matched by the energy of those who live and work there. And this is why it is important that those advocating for zoning measures in Cullowhee prevail in the face of the passionate but misguided voices trying to squelch the forward motion.

Western Carolina University has 7,500 traditional college students who live and study in and around Cullowhee. Total enrollment is around 10,300, but some of those are nontraditional students — professionals seeking a second degree who live elsewhere or students at its satellite locations. By 2023 — that sounds like the distant future, but is now less than 10 years away — that 7,500 figure is expected to grow to 11,000. That’s a whopping 46 percent increase in students, and that doesn’t account for the faculty and staff required to accommodate this growth.


From 2000 to 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the township of Cullowhee grew by 47 percent. That made it easily the fastest-growing township in Jackson County during that decade.

Student apartment complexes, communities for the faculty and staff, and commercial development are now part of Cullowhee and will play a role in its future. It’s as sure as sunrise and the leaves falling every autumn.

The Jackson County Planning Board is trying to make sure that those who profit from this growth also help pay for it. Developers need to help cover the cost of new infrastructure like roads and sidewalks. They also need to be careful not to infringe on neighborhoods and family farms by dumping traffic in front of houses or locating too close to them, causing noise problems, having parking lots that send stormwater runoff into someone’s yard or pasture or creek, or just ruining the atmosphere enjoyed by generations of rural Jackson County families.

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Elected leaders — in particular the Jackson County commissioners — need to stand strong on this issue. Case studies will prove that good zoning does not deter growth but instead promotes it by providing developers with clear and concrete guidelines so they know upfront what they have to do. 

There are those who will fight the creation of a planning district, but they are wrong. To do nothing opens up the beautiful Cullowhee Valley for years of ragtag, profit-at-all-cost development that won’t serve the short- or long-term good. Doing nothing is the equivalent of writing a blank check to those who care nothing about the heritage or history of this region.

Planners are working to make sure that the regulations in the Cullowhee Planning District won’t be a one-size-fits-all model. This district is small enough so that exemptions and special uses can be allowed, ensuring that long-time residents don’t lose potential profit from their land while still protecting the integrity of the Cullowhee Valley. 

It’s a shame people like Mike Clark, a former member of the Cullowhee Advisory Committee, resigned from that post. If this plan passes — and we think it will, and think it needs to — his voice would be valuable in making sure that regulators don’t harm the interests of long-time property owners and residents. 

Cullowhee, a special place now, could become one of this nation’s most prized college communities. The university leadership is making the right moves. It’s situated in one of the most picturesque valleys on the Eastern Seaboard. It has a passionate citizenry who believe in what it can become.

Enacting these zoning measures currently being considered by the county planning board will help Cullowhee fulfill its potential. We hope Jackson’s leaders give Cullowhee a chance to do just that. 

(Scott McLeod can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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