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441 corridor planning teaches students about smart growth

By Jennifer Garlesky • Staff Writer

Students at Smokey Mountain Elementary and Cherokee Indian Reservation schools will be learning an important lesson about land development.


For three days (Jan. 14 to 16) students will be participating in a youth educational workshop hosted by Kimley-Horn, a Raleigh-based consulting firm that is creating a land development plan for U.S. 441 from the U.S. 74 junction to Cherokee’s downtown district.

“The workshop will teach students about the principles of planning,” said Matt Noonkester, a planner with the consulting firm.

About two months ago, Jackson County commissioners hired Kimley-Horn to develop a plan of action for this corridor that leads travelers into the Qualla business district, the Great Smoky Mountain National Park and the Blue Ridge Parkway.

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County leaders hope that developing a plan for this four-lane highway might regulate commercial growth along the corridor.

This area has recently become a “hot spot” for development since water and sewer lines are currently being laid for the completion of the Whittier sanitary sewer plant. Plans call for the plant to be completed in summer 2008, which may turn this rural community into a target for growth and potentially turn into an unsightly eyesore and driving nightmare like Gatlinburg, Tenn., or N.C. 107 out of Sylva.

Incorporating students into the study’s development is a recent addition to Jackson County’s plan, County Manager Ken Westmoreland said. “We though it was a good idea. It’s going to be up to this group of folks to implement it, but it’s the next generation that will see it through.”

With the help of the Cherokee Preservation Foundation, county leaders were able to obtain a grant from the foundation to pay for the program.

The foundation, which operates from money generated at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino, awards grants to various organizations that ensures the tribe’s culture and history is preserved.

Maintaining the rural landscape and welcoming growth along this corridor is one of the top priorities of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. The tribe has a vested interest in this study since an entrance road is being constructed off of U.S. 441 to lead visitors into the tribe’s proposed Sequoyah National Golf Club. The study also determines what visitors will see before entering its downtown district.

The foundation’s cultural leadership initiative is funding the student’s involvement in the study. The initiative focuses on designing programs that will help Cherokee people develop leadership skills, according to its Web site.

“We are trying to make sure the youth have a voice in all our initiatives,” said Bobby Raines, program associate. “We encourage our youth to participate in all of our initiatives.”

Jackson County leaders are extremely concerned about area resident’s involvement in this corridor’s planning process.

The commissioners have gone as far as appointing a nine-member advisory committee composed of Qualla community residents and representatives of the Eastern Band. The advisory committee and commissioners met last month to discuss their vision for this four-mile roadway’s landscape.

It will be this group of people who will essentially determine if there is a bike lane next to the highway, stop lights every 10 feet or mandatory setbacks and landscaping requirements for new businesses.

The workshop

Over the course of the workshop, students will be taught how to preserve the rural landscape while welcoming development into the area. Students will be participating in hands-on exercises that demonstrate general planning principles, Noonkester explained.

One exercise students might participate in is creating a box city out of cardboard boxes.

“Involving children and the parents in the current planning initiatives for the U.S. 441 corridor will lead to future champions for the vision,” Noonkester said. “ A lot of times as adults we think we know how to plan for the future, but with children — that lens they see it through can show us the answers.”

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