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Cullowhee planning standards passed

fr cullowheeIt’s official: Cullowhee now has zoning standards.

The culmination of a process ongoing since 2012, Jackson County Commissioners voted unanimously last week to adopt a set of standards developed by a committee headed up by planning board member Scott Baker through years of public meetings and work sessions. 

The effort began as an answer to the explosion of new student housing in the community surrounding Western Carolina University. The buildings were going up virtually unregulated, and members of the community started getting concerned that outside developers were poised to change Cullowhee’s character forever. 

The resulting rulebook isn’t perfect, Baker said, but it’s a good start. 

“There’s no one solution that’s going to make everyone happy, but we’re hoping to move forward with something that’s going to help protect everyone — protect their property, protect their businesses, their interests,” Baker told commissioners before the vote. “This is the direction we need to go.”

The standards have garnered their share of opposition in addition to support, a diversity of opinion demonstrated at the eight public meetings since the start of the process. At the final public hearing, held in April, eight of the 14 people who spoke were against the standards, four spoke in favor and two gave neutral comments. 

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Bob Hooper, who owns storage units in Cullowhee, was not one of the 14 who spoke in April but came to last week’s commissioners meeting to share his thoughts before the vote. 

“I do not think there is enough commercial development area for potentially growing Cullowhee and the university in the future,” Hooper told commissioners. “One of my particular lots that’s in this has storage buildings on it, and yet it is deemed for residential, so I think it ought to be listed as commercial.”

Both Baker and the commissioners readily admitted that the standards might need tweaking still but said that it’s imperative to pass something now, rather than waiting for the perfect document to appear. 

“This is a dynamic document,” Commissioner Vicki Greene told Hooper. “When the time comes that you have commercial need for that property, then you should come before commissioners and the council and it will be considered. As long as it fits into what is going on around it, it will be approved.”

Anything in the plan can be changed through a review process that begins with the Cullowhee Community Planning Council — a group of Cullowhee residents, business owners and property owners appointed by commissioners — and then goes to the Jackson County Planning Board and finally to commissioners for final approval. 

Commissioners said that checking in with the new ordinance will be a priority for them. 

“I don’t want us to do anything that’s going to put us in a situation where we later look back and think, ‘Why did we do that?’ but by doing this [revisiting the ordinance] each year and having an opportunity for anyone, like Mr. Hooper if he a problem, this should be able to work,” said Commissioner Boyce Dietz. 

It’s possible, Commissioner Mark Jones said, that the board won’t even wait a full 12 months to see how the new ordinance is working. And when it comes to that, Greene said, it might behoove commissioners to do a three-for-one and look in on the planning ordinances governing Cashiers and the U.S. 441 corridor as well. 

“If you’re going to look at one, I think they should all be looked at to see if they’re working or if there are changes that need to be made,” Greene said. 

But while commissioners were ready to promise revisions and changes to the ordinance if they proved necessary, they were also eager to get the current version in effect as soon as possible. A last-minute amendment to the ordinance gave commissioners the power to act as the planning council until that body could be appointed and formed. As a result, the standards could go into effect immediately following the vote. 

The change, Chairman Brian McMahan said, was needed due to the fact that the county is without a planner following the resignation of Director Gerald Green. That vacancy could potentially slow progress on a lot of planning-related issues in the county, and commissioners wanted to prevent any eleventh-hour application that would be exempt from the new standards from sneaking in before the effective date. 

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