Studying the future: With public sewer on the way, Jackson aims to temper the tide of uncontrolled development along U.S. 441 corridor

By Jennifer Garlesky • Staff Writer

The rural landscape of U.S. 441 heading into Cherokee is changing. Drivers can see numerous realty signs touting “land for sale” along the four-lane roadway that leads into the Qualla Boundary’s business district.

In less than a year, water and sewer lines will be laid along the road, making it a prime location for commercial development. In order to guide the expected growth, Jackson County officials are taking a proactive approach. At their Nov. 5 meeting, commissioners picked a Raleigh-based consulting firm to create a development plan for the area.

“We know where there is water and sewer there will be growth,” Commissioner Tom Massie said. “We are trying to be ahead of the growth curve.”

Commissioner William Shelton, who lives in Whittier, says developing a good plan is critical. “Water and sewer are the primary elements that drive growth,” Shelton said. “With the growth of the casino and hotel operations in Cherokee, we can expect just an explosion on the corridor.”

Business owners like Ray Williamson, owner of Pop’s Country Store and Granny’s Kitchen in Cherokee, support the county’s decision in trying to regulate growth.

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“You just don’t want everybody to come in,” he said. “You got to have some kind of control.”

Williamson also supports the new water and sewer lines. “I think it will be good for water and sewer to come here. We need it.”

Real estate companies agree that the area will be ripe for development when the lines are completed.

“As far as property prices we are expecting it to go up,” William Holden, broker at Western Carolina Properties, said. “This is a high-dollar commercial area.”

Holden said that having water and sewer along the corridor would make development much easier. “To be able to rely on a community water and sewer system will make building much easier,” he said.

Holden, however, is a bit skeptical of the county’s corridor study.

“There ain’t anything anybody can do to stop it,” he said. “The land is going to get developed one way or another.”

Commissioners insist they are trying to guide growth, not stop it. Sitting back and allowing unregulated growth to occur along this section is not something county officials want to see happen.

“Most people would agreed if we didn’t do anything we failed,” Shelton said. “We need to plan for that type of growth.”


Getting a plan on paper

Over the next six months, Kimley-Horn and Associates will analyze the area and develop a protection ordinance and a land preservation report. The county is paying $154,300 for the study along the two-mile corridor that connects U.S. 74 and the Great Smoky Mountains Expressway to downtown Cherokee.

The often-criticized commercial sprawl of N.C. 107 prompted county officials to take a hands-on approach to U.S. 441.

“(The corridor) is very ripe for intense commercial development” Jackson County Manager Ken Westmoreland said. “We don’t want another N.C. 107.”

Massie agreed.

“We are trying to prevent it from becoming a Russ Avenue (in Waynesville) and N.C. 107,” he said. “We are trying to be proactive instead of reactive.”

Drivers are all too familiar with the traffic congestion created along N.C. 107 out of Sylva. The strip of commercial development with dozens of entryways promotes reckless driving, traffic back-ups and is just unattractive. Commissioners are worried a similar situation could develop on U.S. 441. Currently only a few motels, gas stations and homes line this corridor, but once the Whittier sewer plant is completed next year, commercial developers might see this area as hot spot for development.


Meeting of the minds

A steering committee comprised of members of the consulting firm, community and planning board members, and representatives from the Eastern Band of Cherokee will help develop a plan for the U.S. 441 corridor.

Right now the study’s boundary is from the U.S. 441 and U.S. 74 junction to the Qualla Boundary, said Jackson County Planning Coordinator Linda Cable. But this is just a tentative plan that will probably expand into other areas.

Once members begin meeting, the group will make recommendations on what steps will ensure that the development protects the environment, retains the rural, small-town character of the region and makes it a safe roadway, Westmoreland explained.


Special road

Heavy traffic already flows along this section of U.S. 441 through Jackson County. Visitors use this road to enter the Cherokee reservation and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

“We recognize this is a special section of road,” Westmoreland said.

“I think it’s absolutely a critical step,” said Cable of the study. “This is a critical corridor and it needs to be protected.”

“We need to determine how the district should look and preserve the character of the area,” she added.

By June 2008, Whittier will have a sewage treatment plant. The $4.5 million plant has been in the works since early 2000 and will be managed by the Tuckaseigee Water and Sewer Authority. It was built with a $3 million grant from the North Carolina Rural Economic Development Center, funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Appalachian Regional Commission and public contributions.

“This is a totally debt-free project,” said Joe Cline, executive director of TWASA.

The plant will be located at the Whittier Industrial Park. One line will run from the U.S. 74-U.S. 441 interchange to Smoky Mountain Elementary School and then connect to the industrial park. The second line will run along Thomas Valley Road to downtown Whittier, Cline explained.


Tap-in fees

Area residents and businesses have the option of connecting to the sewer lines for free during construction, Cline said. The grant from the Rural Center will pay for those who want to connect now.

“The majority of the grant money is to provide sewer to an un-sewered community,” Cline said.

But residents and business owners will have to make the decision about tapping into the new system quickly. According to Cline, about 40 percent of the sewer lines are already installed. Construction to the new plant is also underway as workers clear the land to the new facility.

A household that chooses to connect once construction is completed will be required to pay the tap-in fee. TWSA’s fees to connect to existing water and sewer lines can be costly. To connect water and sewage to a three-bedroom house costs a homeowner about $2,200, Cline said.


Increasing capacity

The new sewer plant will likely promote commercial growth throughout the area. The new plant will be able to process 200,000 gallons of sewage a day but the county will initially permit the plant for half that amount, Cline said.

But Whittier residents do not need to worry about sewer lines being monopolized by outside development.

“The people that the system was designed for will be served first,” Shelton said.

Shelton said that the plant will solve some already existing problems.

“From an environmental standpoint it will stop the infiltration of sewage into the groundwater,” he said, referring to faulty septic systems in the area.


The firm

Helping Jackson County regulate growth along U.S. 441 is the main mission of corridor study, said Mike Rutkowski, the study project manager.

“We want to guide growth in such as way to protect the access and aesthetics of the 441 corridor,” he said. “We also want to protect the viewshed. I think that we need to be good stewards of that.”

A proposed master plan for the corridor will be presented to the public in January. For five days community members and stakeholders will get the opportunity to state their likes and dislikes with the model plan.

“It will certainly give them the opportunity to guide development in the right way,” Rutowski said.

Right now there is a lot of unguided development, he said in reference to the numerous billboards and older buildings along the four-lane road.

The Raleigh-based firm has assisted several local governments throughout the Southeast in developing plans to manage growth in scenic areas. In addition to a development plan, the firm will create an overlay ordinance that will identify design standards in terms of number of parking spaces and signage.

“We just want the right development there,” he said. “The more information we can give developers, they will be able to meet the expectations,” he said.

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