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Charlotte company seeks approval for $25 million student complex in Forest Hills

A Charlotte company wants to invest $25 million in a 400-person housing development for Western Carolina University students who are looking for the finer things in life.

Monarch Ventures has asked the Village of Forest Hills, a tiny incorporated community next to WCU, to allow it to use what’s known as the 19.5-acre Valhalla tract. Monarch Ventures wants to buy the tract, located on North Country Club Drive, from owner Catamount Hollow LLC.

Town leaders are expected to discuss the request, and residents’ reactions that were gathered via a community survey, on Friday during a board retreat.

Shannon King of Monarch Ventures said this would be a “premier” student housing complex, offering amenities that aren’t currently available, including a clubhouse, pool, tanning beds, exercise programs and more.

“There’s a need for quality housing at Western Carolina University,” King said. “And this could be a recruitment and retention tool for the university.”

WCU has experienced significant growth in the past decade. Spokesman Bill Studenc said as the university continues growing enrollment — a stated goal of new Chancellor David Belcher, who has noted state funding is tied to those numbers — there is a corresponding need to house those students.

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“I know that right now we are at capacity,” Studenc said.

King has assured Village leaders that Monarch Ventures is “sensitive to concerns about noise and traffic,” and would provide “on-site, 24-7 management for safety.” The group also offers programs for students living with the complex. King said rental rates would be comparable to residential dorm rates at WCU.

Monarch Ventures has just broken ground on a similar project at Coastal Carolina University in Conway, S.C.

Kolleen Begley, who lives in Forest Hills and serves as the community’s finance officer, welcomes the prospect of upscale housing in the small residential village.

“Not everyone in the Village thinks students are a nuisance,” Begley said. “The Village is a municipality, not a retirement community. I have more faith in our young adults attending college than what has been depicted at monthly meetings from the only people who have time to attend. I support the university we chose to move across from. WCU is vital to our local economy. So are jobs and tax money.”

Forest Hills incorporated in 1997 for one primary purpose: keeping student housing out. The 350 to 400 people living in the Village of Forest Hills were clear at that time on not wanting students taking over their community.

The newly sworn town board’s first act after the referendum to incorporate passed? Adopting a building moratorium on everything but single-family, site-built, residential houses with at least 2,000 feet of heated space. The board was confident there weren’t many students who could afford that kind of housing.

King said ideally construction would start in November, but that she believes Monarch Ventures — if town leaders give the OK — would start phasing-in the project beginning next year.

Mark Teague, zoning administrator for Forest Hills, said that the development group would need a use permit and perhaps a variance from the town.

“They’ve got their ducks in a row,” he said, “and I think this is the No. 1 spot where they want to do it.”

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