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Final round for Cullowhee standards

fr cullowheeCullowhee residents crowded the basketball court at the Cullowhee Recreation Center last week for a chance to sound off during the last public hearing before Jackson County Commissioners take a final vote on whether to adopt the Cullowhee Community Planning Standards.

The planning process has been going on for three years, encompassing seven public meetings, each drawing between 50 and 100 people. As apartment building after apartment building sprung up on former farmland in response to growth at Western Carolina University, a commissioner-appointed group of Cullowhee residents, business owners and property owners worked to develop a set of standards strict enough to protect Cullowhee from the impacts of ill-planned development but flexible enough to please the area’s population of fiercely independent residents, many of whom live on land that has been in the family for a century. 

That proved to be a difficult task. Of the 14 people who spoke at the public hearing — about 80 people filled the room — eight spoke against the standards. Four people spoke in favor of them and two gave middle-of-the-road comments. 


What they said 

“I’ve talked to my family and many others in the group, and 93 pages [of standards] is way too restrictive. The apartments are here to stay and Jackson County already has zoning restrictions for new apartments, so I fail to see why we need to address this again. WCU is in the process of pulling back their students in the dorms and building new student buildings, so what we’re basically doing is freezing the status quo here in Cullowhee.”

— Mary Jo Jones, Cullowhee native

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“I think the plan, though not perfect, is a good start. If we wait for a perfect plan we will never get one. In the meantime, WCU will continue to pursue its vision of growth and the surrounding community will see change.”

— Joel Setzer, Cullowhee resident and division operations engineer for the N.C. Department of Transportation 

“The board of commissioners, the planning board and Cullowhee Community Planning Council, which is appointed by the commissioners, will probably approve this. We don’t even have the right to vote on these very restrictive regulations. Do we live in a democracy or a dictatorship in Jackson County?”

— Arbra Gibson, Little Savannah Road resident

“I am for zoning. I don’t know about all of it that’s in there. I do not feel like we can totally shove this under the rug. Something has to be done. We’re behind Carolina Apartments. [There’s] a lot of pasture, a lot of land that can be abused by people coming in and purchasing it.”

— Frances Mincey, Cullowhee native

“I know you worked really, really hard on this ordinance, and at first I kind of thought that was a good idea, and you did a good job with the apartment thing after the fact. The barn door is open, the horses have left. There’s not a lot we can do with that. But as I went through the 93 pages and realized that the multiple properties I already own in Cullowhee would not fit in those requirements, it became very concerning to me.”

— Gail Debnam, Cullowhee property owner

“I think the committee did a phenomenal job of putting together restrictions which are needed in this area. [But the map] left a huge area out on the east side of the river.”

— Tucker Kirk, Cullowhee resident

“Under these ordinances, I couldn’t put [my property] back as it is. That upset me because I spent a half million dollars on it and I know I did a good job with what I put there, and it will not meet the standards that are in this ordinance right now. That’s pretty distressing.”

— Jack Debnam, Cullowhee resident and former county commission chairman

“This so-called single-family designation looks to me to be 75, 80 percent of the map. Some research has been done in the last five years. There’s only been one [single-family] dwelling built in this planning area that was used for that purpose. I don’t think there’s any demand for that at all.”

— Doug Parker, Cullowhee native

“I build all over the United States, and this zoning that we have here is totally ludicrous. It is too rigid for this area. I’ve dealt with Raleigh, I’ve dealt with Charlotte, and the standards you have here are more stringent then any they’ve ever required.”

— Richard Wright, Jackson County building contractor 

“There may be some changes that need to be made, but overall the idea of zoning helps protect the community and protect property, because what people do on their land does affect my land.”

— Joseph Pechmann, WCU professor and Cullowhee resident

“Some of us have pensions, some of us have 401ks, but a lot of people around here have land. We have properties and we have saved this through generations. This is our investment. That is what we plan on handing over to our children. When you tell us this land can only be for single families, we think, ‘Well, down the line maybe we would like to put up a little country store, maybe we would like to do something different. Maybe we would like to put up a development.’”

— Brenda Gray, Cullowhee native

“Zoning done right has great benefits, but zoning done wrong can have a very negative impact. Please listen to both sides. Make any changes you feel are necessary.”

— Mike Dappke

“The Cullowhee community was killed off whenever the bypass was put in, and that was the wonderful good idea of a group like this who thought they were doing what was best for the community when obviously it was not. I think there were some poor decisions made in the past, and I think this will just further those.”

— Caroline Lewis, Cullowhee native



Be heard

Commissioners will continue to accept written comments on the proposed zoning standards for Cullowhee until they vote on the issue, likely at their May 21 meeting. They will also take verbal comments at the beginning of their May 7 and May 21 meetings. Written comments can be sent to Angie Winchester, board clerk, at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or 401 Grindstaff Cove Road, Sylva, NC 28779. 

The proposed standards are online at

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