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Student housing development gets the green light in Cullowhee

fr studenthousingAfter nearly four years of trying, a Charlotte-based development company has gotten the OK to build a high-end student housing complex in Cullowhee. 

The Jackson County Planning Council voted unanimously last week to approve plans for the 488-bed development to go in on two-lane South Painter Road. The apartment complex, expected to be ready for students by fall 2016 with construction beginning this summer, will include 136 units spread over four buildings, with a pool, clubhouse and bathhouse also going in on the 11.7-acre site. 

“We make it a community more than student housing,” said Mike Chatham, vice president of development for King Residential Group, formerly known as Monarch Ventures. The complex will charge higher prices than typical student housing — about $500 a month for furnished apartments with amenities such as a pool, fitness center and tanning beds included — and feature an “A-plus quality student life program,” said Julie Yow, vice president of operations. 

It’s been a long road for King Residential, which first began exploring a development in the village of Forest Hills — located directly across from Western Carolina University — in 2011 under the name Monarch. Forest Hills turned them down, and in 2014, the company put in a land use application for a property on two-lane South Painter Road — just days before a new county ordinance regulating subdivisions with more than 60 bedrooms went into effect. The timing would have exempted the company from complying with the ordinance, but technical issues with the application changed that. 

King Residential, however, does not have to abide by the Cullowhee Community Planning Standards, adopted in May. Had they been subject to those rules, the project would have had to be considerably smaller. Currently, 488 beds are planned for the 11.7-acre property — had the Cullowhee standards applied, King Residential would have a 140-bed maximum, 28.7 percent of the current proposal. 

Just months after the company submitted its original application, brewing dissension between the company’s co-owners — Martha Thomly and Shannon King — landed Monarch in court. In a court document, Thomly claimed that King had acted with “artifice, fraud, and intentional misrepresentation,” wasting and diverting company money and violating the company’s operating agreement. The solution, it was decided, was to dissolve the company, and an attorney had been working toward such a goal since October. 

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Currently, Thomly and King are in mediation on the case, and plans for the Cullowhee property are proceeding under a company called King Residential Group. The company is using the same tax ID number as the now-defunct Monarch Ventures, LLC, Chatham said, and it is owned by King. Thomly is not involved. 

So now, it’s simply up to the planning board to check the plans for compliance with county ordinances. One effect of not being subject to Cullowhee standards is that the company is not required to place sidewalks along the front of its property. With no clear walking path to campus, it’s likely that residents will rely heavily on cars to get there. That reality rubbed some board members the wrong way. 

“There’s so much to-do here about traffic, and so much of that traffic could simply be lessened by having a sidewalk and bike rack to campus,” member Burt Kornegay said. “It would be more attractive and more people would be likely to use it if they had a walkway and a bikeway.”

Chatham replied that a sidewalk along South Painter might be difficult to justify, since Ledbetter Road — to which South Painter connects — doesn’t have any kind of walking path and sending pedestrians that direction could be unsafe. 

“That puts the liability on us if one gets run over,” Chatham told the board. 

Planning board members didn’t quite buy that explanation, but pointed out that it’s in the county’s long-term plan for a greenway to eventually connect WCU and the Cullowhee Community Garden across the street. And, Yow said, the company may also explore the option of paying WCU to run its shuttle out to the development. The university had earlier decided to discontinue its off-campus shuttle service in the fall semester. 

But, member Scott Baker said, “until then all we have are the narrow roads.”

“They’re following all the rules that they’re having to follow so I accept that, but I think it would be responsible to put in sidewalks,” he said. 

The board did require some adjustments to the original proposal — more benching along the retaining wall, an easement from Jackson County to run utilities across the street to Cullowhee Community Garden, a landscaping plan and coordination with the N.C. Department of Transportation for permits. 

To accommodate increased traffic on the road, a left-hand turn lane will be added at the intersection of Monteith Gap Road and South Painter Road, and a right turn lane will go in on South Painter at the entrance to the project.

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