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Growth prompts call for Cullowhee land-use plan

fr cullowheebunchCullowhee community members have been making their case for nearly a year now that this pseudo-college town needs land-use planning to guide the growth that’s come knocking.

This month, supporters are circulating a petition as evidence that there is a critical mass in Cullowhee clamoring for planning. They fear development catering to the students and faculty of Western Carolina University could leave Cullowhee vulnerable to unseemly or slapdash building.

“Cullowhee is gorgeous, but the university area is growing. In the process of growth, we don’t want to see what makes this place so special lost,” said WCU Chancellor David Belcher.

An orchestrated push for planning in Cullowhee is not coming from the university, however. At the helm is a community group called Curve, which stands for Cullowhee Revitalization Effort.

They have brought the issue to the forefront of public discourse, but haven’t managed to push the idea over the finish line.

“We have been talking about it a long time,” said Mary Jean Herzog, a WCU professor of education. “We need to go ahead and establish a Cullowhee community planning council and get started and stop talking about it.”

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The goal for now is not enacting land-use regulations, but merely getting county commissioners to appoint a task force to start the ball rolling.

The majority of county commissioners have said they are amenable to the idea, with a couple of caveats: it must be community driven, and there must be support among property owners, not just among those who live or work in Cullowhee.

Since last spring, Curve has held community discussions and meetings on the subject, which some county commissioners attended.

“We keep hearing things like we have to see if there is community support. We have showed them community support from those meetings,” Herzog said.

But the group has yet to make a formal proposal to the commissioners.

“Either through a petition or emails or a presentation, they should let commissioners know there is support for this effort, and the property owners in the Cullowhee community want community-based planning,” said Jackson County Planning Director Gerald Green.

The petition being amassed by Curve members seems aimed at just that.

“We, the undersigned, petition the Jackson County Commissioners, to establish a Cullowhee Community Planning Council, immediately,” the petition states.

A primary litmus test to win the support of county commissioners could be tough to meet, however. The majority of commissioners have expressly said they would endorse a planning process if property owners are on board.

The problem, of course, is that it’s hard to measure support among property owners for something so amorphous, something floating in the stratosphere of ideas.

So it presents a Catch 22 for planning advocates. Until the planning process actually gets underway, and until there’s some idea of what land-use regulations in Cullowhee would look like, it could be difficult to get the support of said property owners.

Herzog questioned whether property owners should be the linchpin, however. Community planning has more stakeholders than just property owners, and should take the desires and visions of those who live and work in Cullowhee into equal account, she said.

“We are not confining it strictly to business owners and property owners. Most of the people who have come out for these meetings are residents of Cullowhee or Jackson County,” Herzog said.

Under state laws governing community planning districts, regulations must have support from at least one-third of the property owners to be enacted.

County commissioners would ultimately have the final say on whether to enact any specific guidelines the task force developed. Jackson County currently has two community planning districts: one in Cashiers and one along the U.S. 441 corridor leading to Cherokee.


What’s in, what’s out

Another outstanding issue is what area would be included in a Cullowhee planning district. State laws governing community planning districts require them to be at least 640 acres and include at least 10 tracts of land.

Green has been toying with what the planning district boundaries might look like, but that would ultimately be a question the planning council — if and when it is appointed — would have to answer.

“I feel like we should go ahead and appoint an official planning council and let them grapple with the boundary,” Herzog said.

The university is obviously the largest landowner in Cullowhee. WCU’s inclusion in a planning district could quickly and easily help it meet the 640-acre threshold.

But whether WCU would want to be included in a formal planning district remains to be seen.

Belcher said WCU is interested in playing a role in the process of “shepherding growth” in a positive way. But he is sensitive to past criticism that the university was heavy-handed in imposing its will on the area, even if the accusation wasn’t exactly accurate.

“The university has a delicate balance in being part of the conversation but neither in reality or perception to be dominating,” Belcher said. “I don’t ever want the university to be perceived as being the 800-pound gorilla.”

In other words, WCU might not want to be included in the actual planning boundary.

There’s another reason for hesitation: the university doesn’t want regulations dictating what it can build on its campus.

“One of my responsibilities in leading a university is to have the university chart its course. I don’t want anything to get in the way of that responsibility we have been given,” Belcher said. “I am committed to WCU being part of a growing, thriving community, but there are some nitty gritty details about the university being part of a planning council.”

Herzog agrees the university would be a valuable partner in the process, regardless of whether it is officially included in a planning district.

“We can still work together because we have the same interests,” Herzog said.

In the meantime, Cullowhee planning proponents have gotten a tacit endorsement by the Jackson County planning board. The Jackson County Planning Board, which is appointed by county commissioners, unanimously supported the concept of land-use planning in Cullowhee in December — with a couple of “if’s.”

“That it needed to be community driven. It had to be led by the community and have the support of the community,” said Green, county planning director.

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