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Development could be in Cullowhee’s future

fr cullowheePhones in Jackson County’s planning department have been buzzing lately with people interested in developing property in Cullowhee, and that news has spurred county commissioners to work toward getting a planning council in place to handle requests that might come their way.

“We’re getting some phone calls, we’re getting some questions about developments in the area that would require board approval,” said Planning Director Michael Poston.

One potential development would be on Old Cullowhee Road, just past Western Carolina University when traveling from Sylva, while the other would be off of Speedwell Road near the intersection with N.C. 107. The locations are spread over five parcels. 

But nothing is on paper — yet. No applications or other paperwork have been filed for either location, though Poston has been fielding some rather specific questions about what is or isn’t allowed on the properties and how to go about asking for an exemption. 

“I think we’ll see some applications,” Poston said. 

It’s looking like the property on Old Cullowhee Road is being eyed for some type of family housing development, perhaps involving townhomes, duplexes or some kind of mixed housing. No specific plan has been identified for the Speedwell Road property, Poston said. However, four of the five parcels are zoned for single family-manufactured housing — the fifth is commercial —  are zoned for single family housing, so building denser housing would require getting special permission from the Cullowhee Community Planning Council. 

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As of now, the planning council and the board of commissioners are one and the same. 

The first-ever zoning standards for the Cullowhee area went into effect last May, after about three years of drafts, debate and public meetings. The ordinance divides Cullowhee into different zones — such as multi-family residential, single-family residential, commercial and institutional — with different development rules in play for each. If somebody wants to build something that the zoning rules don’t allow for, they can present their case to the Cullowhee Planning Council, who will hear both sides of the argument in a court-like quasi-judicial hearing before making a decision. 

When the standards passed last year, commissioners opted to put themselves in as a placeholder planning council. At that point, the planning director’s position was vacant, and commissioners reasoned that planning-related issues would likely move rather slowly until it was filled. Putting themselves on the council temporarily would ensure that, in the event an application were filed, the county would be able to react, commissioners decided. 

With Poston now one month into his position as the new planning director, that stop-gap is no longer necessary, and commissioners are planning to appoint most of the seven-member council at its upcoming March 3 meeting. 

Because council members have the job of saying yay or nay to proposals that could have a significant impact on the community, it’s best to have people with a vested interest in Cullowhee making those decisions anyway, said County Manger Chuck Wooten. To sit on the council, a person must live in Cullowhee or own a business or property there. 

Representatives on the seven-member board are appointed to three-year staggered terms, which means the first batch of appointees will likely be a mix of two-year and three-year members.

Commissioners are beginning their search for members with those who sat on the eight-member Cullowhee Community Planning Advisory Committee, a commissioner-appointed group that drafted the original zoning ordinance before sending it along to the planning board and then the board of commissioners for adoption. Of the eight, one has passed away and one resigned before the job was done, leaving a list of six names for commissioners to start with. 

However, commissioners may also look at alternate names, especially considering that two current commissioners — Chairman Brian McMahan and Commissioner Boyce Dietz — were not on the board when the council was appointed. Or, all six of the former advisory committee members may not want to serve on the council. 

“Between now and then (March 3) we’ll try to work to come up with the seven names, as many of the seven as we can,” McMahan said. 


Want to sit on the council? 

What: The Cullowhee Community Planning Council has a number of responsibilities, including reviewing proposed amendments to the planning ordinance, making decisions on requests for variances and special-use permits and hearing appeals on enforcement of the planning ordinance. Commissioners are in the process of nominating people to serve on the seven-member council. 

When: According to the ordinance, the council should meet monthly. However, meetings could take place less frequently if there is no business to conduct. 

Who: Anybody who owns a business, owns property or lives within the boundaries of the Cullowhee planning district is eligible. Members serve three-year terms with a maximum of two consecutive, though some initial appointees may sit for two-year terms to get the council on a staggered term schedule. 

How: To be considered for appointment, contact a Jackson County commissioner or fill out the Jackson County Boards and Communities Volunteer form. Forms and commissioner contact information are available at

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