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Riverside development proposed in Cullowhee

A large residential development proposed near Western Carolina University could boost Cullowhee’s revitalization movement and cater to the region’s professional crowd seeking an outdoor lifestyle, but its proximity to the Tuckasegee River has also attracted criticism from area environmentalists.


The Cullowhee River Club is slated for a 125-acre tract with roughly 1.5 miles of river frontage along the Tuck just south of WCU’s campus. It would have nearly 300 residential units — a mix of condominiums, cottages, town homes and cabins. Their prices will range between $200,000 and $400,000.

The comfortable accommodations close to the river and the university will draw retirees and second-home buyers — but also serve pent up housing demand among faculty and staff at WCU. He said many professors who work at WCU, actually live in Haywood and Buncombe counties and commute to work because of a lack of housing options in Jackson County.

“I kept hearing there was a real need for faculty and staff housing in a nice new community with amenities near the university,” Newell said. “That just didn’t exist.”

He said he has already received numerous phone calls from interested buyers.

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But, while a project of that scope will undoubtedly attract suitors, it will also change the landscape and river’s edge. The Tuck has been the source of lots of attention: a fly fishing trail, a string of new boat launches and put-ins, master plans for a riverside greenway, and a proposed blueways paddling trail are being leveraged to attract visitors to Jackson County.

Now, houses will line about half of the property’s 1.5 miles of river frontage, impacting the experience of fishermen, rafters and kayakers that float the Tuck.

Ken Brown, an active member of the Tuckasegee Watershed Association Board and the county’s chapter of the environmental group WNC Alliance, decried the change.

“It’s a great loss to the community,” said Brown. “We’re losing something that’s traditionally been a pastured, idyllic setting.”

Brown said the property was one of the last large plots of undeveloped low lands along the Tuckasegee and had hoped it would be developed into a county park or other public use area.

Besides altering the view, Brown said that development that close to the river also raises concerns about pollution, sediment and runoff.

The site is now undeveloped and consists largely of pasture and some wooded hillsides. 

Construction must be set back at least within 30 feet of the river’s edge because of laws protecting designated trout waters, but federal floodway regulations will actually push construction even further back than that, according to County Code Enforcer John Jeleniewski.

The project appears to meet county development regulations, including the subdivision ordinance and open space requirements, according to Planning Department Director Gerald Green. There is only one exception: some proposed roads as that are narrower than required. The project also meets watershed, erosion and flood regulations. The county’s steep slope building laws don’t apply to the site.

The site plan does need the approval of the county’s planning board to proceed. The board will review the plans at its meeting this week, including road access, water and sewer availability, storm runoff systems and other details.

Green said it had been a while since a project this large was reviewed. Since the economic downturn, large scale projects have been scarce.

“Five years ago was probably last time one this big came before the planning board,” Green said.

Newell said the project is going above and beyond the county’s development regulations, particularly in the area of open space. A large portion of the 125-acre tract is being set aside as open space and not for development. Known as cluster-style development, houses and condos will be concentrated in certain areas, with the rest the land set aside as open space. The county’s development rules require 20 percent of the tract to be left as open space. Newell’s project far exceeds that.

Newell plans to put the steeper slopes in conservation easements, which will help keep steep slope rules from kicking in. He said special catchment ponds will be used to protect the river from sediment and harmful runoff as well.

And, although some clearing of vegetation will be done to give riverside homes a view of the Tuck, the construction will be done in earth tones and a rustic motif to mitigate the impact on the viewshed from the river, Newell said.

“There is a strong demand and limited riverfront property,” Newell said. “But the idea is to make the houses and structures blend into the landscape — we won’t allow white trim.”

The subdivision will have a riverside restaurant and boat ramp, which Newell said will be an asset to river’s recreational sports because paddlers passing by and fisherman working the stream can stop in to use the boat ramp and eat at the restaurant.

The initial investment in the development will be about $10 million — an investment that will benefit the community of Cullowhee, Newell said.

However, Brown said whatever the housing sector stands to gain from the development, the local economy stands to lose more from the impact the project will have on the local natural resources and outdoor sports that attract visitors to the area. He said fishing, paddling and other activities could be adversely affected by the changing landscape.

“There’s a pristine area in there that was undeveloped,” Brown said. “Now we’ll be dealing with storm water runoff and sedimentation.”

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