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A push for planning in Cullowhee gets lukewarm reception from county for now

fr cullowheeThis November could prove to be the do or die month for the planning effort in Cullowhee when Jackson County commissioners decide whether to give the thumbs up or down on the next pivotal step in Cullowhee’s journey to become an official planning district.

Cullowhee — home to Western Carolina University, student-geared businesses and clusters of off-campus housing — is developing into a college town. But Cullowhee lacks the status of a proper town, and as a result, it lacks development regulations governing what can and can’t build or how it must look.

A call for some sort of land-use planning has been growing during the past year in Cullowhee. That call has been heightened following passage of countywide alcohol sales in May — given the prospect of new restaurants, bars and convenience stores that alcohol sales is expected to bring.

Ultimately, however, whether Cullowhee gets planning is up to county commissioners. The first step would be appointing a Cullowhee planning committee, but it is unclear if or when the majority of commissioners would support such a committee.

However, County Planner Gerald Green has been figuring out what area a Cullowhee planning district would encompass — should county leaders decide to explore it further, that is.

In the coming weeks, Green will submit a rough draft of a map for a Cullowhee planning district. He will also propose a list of people from the Cullowhee community willing to serve on a planning committee — again, only if county leaders decide to go that route.

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After he submits the paperwork, he, and many others invested in the future of Cullowhee, will wait to see if it has the blessing of county officials.

“It’s up to the chairman and the county manager to put it on the agenda,” Green said.

If Green’s recommendations do get the green light from commissioners, a steering committee will be formed to define the final planning area and develop a vision for Cullowhee, and development standards to guide and direct growth to meet that vision, Green said.

The process wouldn’t be quick and would include public input along the way, including formal public hearings.

While an actual plan could be a year away at best, a signal from commissioners that they are willing to appoint a planning committee would alone mark a big step for the movement.

So far, proponents of planning measures in Cullowhee have been meeting informally with Green and county officials to push the idea forward.

Many of them see the future of Cullowhee dependent on the community’s ability to make its own planning rules.

“People want some type of management when it comes to development — to put standards in place and to encourage reinvestment along old Cullowhee Road,” Green said.

There are two other planning districts in Jackson County: one in Cashiers and one along the U.S. 441 corridor leading to Cherokee. Jackson is the only county other than Buncombe to have zoning regulations in areas of the county falling outside town limits.


Grassroots or outside influence?

Members of an organization called Cullowhee Revitalization Endeavor (CuRvE) have been vocal proponents for planning in Cullowhee. They called for a series of public meetings with county officials last spring to discuss the effort and proceeded to meet monthly with Green.

Mary Jean Herzog is the chairwoman of CuRvE’s steering committee and a teacher at Western Carolina University. She is also on the short list to be one of the seven or so members on an officially-sanctioned county planning committee, if it is formed.

Herzog said it would lend credence to the movement if the county would appoint an official committee, in place of the informal one pushing the idea of planning now.

“It gives us the potential for being organized,” Herzog said. “Being an unincorporated area we just don’t have many opportunities to think about the future of Cullowhee. But being part of a group will make it so we can take some action.”

She said she envisions Cullowhee as a small college town.

The movement has at least some friends in high places. Representatives from WCU have supported the push for planning in Cullowhee.

On a recent Jackson County business survey, Chancellor David Belcher identified zoning in Cullowhee as the most important service that Jackson County could provide to WCU.

“The community must plan to ensure that as the university grows, and thus as businesses and neighborhoods grow around it, we don’t lose what makes this place so special,” Belcher wrote.

Belcher has also spoken at CuRvE meetings and offered verbal support for developing an at-large vision for the community.

Cullowhee had the fastest growth rate in Western North Carolina between 2000 and 2010, according to the latest census. Many expect that trend to continue.

Already businesses are moving in to capitalize on the recently passed alcohol referendum in Jackson County, and to fill demand for off-campus student housing.

About a quarter of the county’s population already lives in the Cullowhee census tract.

But, some county officials are worried the people pushing planning in Cullowhee may only represent a vocal minority and are leery of the prospect of placing rules on property owners who may not want them.

Commissioner Doug Cody expressed his concerns.

“It needs to be grassroots type of thing with the whole community involved,” Cody said. “I don’t feel it’s right to impose something on the community unless they’re supportive of it.”

Yet, Cody admitted the community of Cullowhee has problems perhaps a concerted planning initiative could alleviate by promoting regulated growth in the old downtown sector.

“As far as having a specific place identified as Cullowhee, that place no longer exists,” Cody said. “A village center for the university would be a great thing. And for the citizens of Cullowhee, they need an identity.”


Benefits versus more government

A common example cited by proponents of planning is a cluster of vacant and run-down mobile homes recently plunked down in the old business sector, seemingly as a holding area.

“Three or four mobile homes appeared right in the middle of old Cullowhee — is that what we want?” asked County Manager Chuck Wooten.

Yet, he echoed Cody’s remarks that despite the perceived benefits of turning Cullowhee into a planning district, if the landowners are opposed, the plan would have a difficult time passing muster with commissioners.

And, Wooten warned, that even if the commissioners form an official Cullowhee planning committee, they can pull the plug anytime during the process, and well before any ordinance is voted on.

“Now it’s at the early stages of informality,” Wooten said. “If (the neighbors) are happy the way they are, we can walk away from it.”

Green said property owners within the limits of the area will be notified that they are included in a proposed zoning district and community hearings would be held well before any rules are put in place or the district is adopted.

Based on a series of community meetings put on informally by CuRvE, and many people believe that a large contingent of the local population was in support of such rules.

But, the idea of any zoning ordinance or development regulations can be a touchy subject in Jackson County, and Western North Carolina for that matter. Realtor Rick Bennett was afraid the idea of a planning district might elicit an oppositionary knee-jerk reaction from his neighbors.

He said one of the most important facets of the planning movement in Cullowhee is to educate community members on its true principles and potential effects.

After living in the community for decades, he has seen it decline from a place with more than 40 businesses and 17 restaurants in the 1970s to what it is now.

“The current generation of people who just moved in here have never seen that,” he said. “I don’t want to say it’s a blighted area, but an area that needs sprucing up.”

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