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Cullowhee: meet your makers

Jackson County Commissioners have begun naming a task force that will shepherd Cullowhee along the way to becoming a bonafide  planning district, complete with tailored development guidelines to ensure compatible growth. 


So far, five members of the nine-person committee have been chosen. Commissioners will fill the remaining spots no later than August. The committee will have one handpicked appointee from each of the five county commissioners, one county commissioner to act as a liaison, two community members selected at large from a pool of applicants and a representative from Western Carolina University.

The committee will be tasked with creating a vision for the community and then helping to draft development standards.

County Commissioner Vicki Greene is excited to see the process that sat for more than a year on the commissioners’ backburner finally gain traction.

“This is obviously a concern of residents in that area for some time,” she said.

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Greene, who represents the Cullowhee area as a commissioner, will serve on the committee as the commissioner delegate. She also handpicked a longtime friend and Cullowhee resident since the 1960s to serve alongside her.

The designation of a planning district and an adoption of development standards will allow Cullowhee to control aspects of growth, like the height of signs or sidewalk requirements for new apartment complexes. Commissioners say they are carefully picking community members who either reside or work in the proposed planning district’s limits and have a vested interest in the area.

As it stands, Greene and her appointment will saddle up next to a retired military colonel, a café owner and a community college dean. 

“I want to see a varied committee, and I think we have a good start on that,” Greene said.

The only appointments still waiting to be filled are the two at-large community members, which will be voted on collectively by commissioners at their meeting next week.

WCU offered its representative just last week, selecting Mark Lord, a geology professor and interim associate provost. Although the university has opted out of being part of the planning district, it will be encompassed by it and is being saved a seat at the table.

“I felt like it was important for Western to have someone on that committee because this whole area will be in and around the campus,” said County Manager Chuck Wooten, who was the finance officer at the university before taking the job as Jackson County manager.

Commission Chairman Jack Debnam said his choice, the retired military colonel who is also a WCU alumnus, should be a good fit.

“He was a colonel; he did a lot of military organization,” Debnam said. “He’s pretty good at knowing what it takes to get things going.”

Debnam, although he lives in the proposed district, will not serve on the board himself. As a property owner in the area, he said it was best he stayed off the board as he might be seen as having a conflict of interest.

Yet, his greatest concern is that before the process gets rolling along, he’d like to be reassured that residents within the planning district are in fact in favor of the concept. Although there have been many vocal proponents of planning in Cullowhee, a mailed survey to each property owner would be a more systematic way of measuring support.

At any moment, he said, the process could be abandoned.

“That’s my main question, is there enough support out there?” Debnam said. “It may not be. There are some people that don’t want any rules.”

But if commissioners are satisfied there is enough support, and the planning district does start to take hold, the next difficult task for the committee will be forging the rules themselves. Although the county has two other planning districts, in Cashiers and along U.S. 441 leading to Cherokee, each place is unique and Cullowhee won’t be able to cut and paste from the other regulations.

“There will have to be some unique standards and attention paid to Cullowhee,” said County Planner Gerald Green.

A stack of half a dozen applicants have applied for the two at-large spots on the task force.

Mae Claxton, an English professor at WCU, was prompted to put her name after plans were publicized for yet another student housing development along Ledbetter Road next to the Tuckasegee River. She lives in a suburb off the same road and worries about the traffic problems, water quality issues and other problems an influx of more than 400 new residents may create in the rural area void of urban infrastructure.

Many of the potential problems, she believes, could be addressed through local land-use planning.

“We’re not against student housing,” Claxton said. “We just think that infrastructure, green spaces, recreation, roads, water and quality of life issues need to be considered when we get more development in the area.”

Another applicant for one of the at-large seats, Rick Bennett, said in the end, it’s the local residents and the taxpayers who suffer when development springs up and there’s no adequate planning involved. He added that the committee and planning district should have been formed a couple of years ago, before the recent upsurge in student housing complexes, commercial development and housing subdivisions.

“We’ve got these apartment complexes everywhere, and developers aren’t paying for any sidewalks or any of the infrastructure their high density might require,” Bennett said. “You and I as taxpayers are paying for it.”



Cullowhee’s planning task force shaping up

County commissioners hand-picked the following people:

• Vickie Greene appointed Myrtle Schrader, who lives in Cullowhee and is a retired Jackson County Health Department employee.

• Mark Jones appointed Scott Baker, who lives in Cullowhee and is a dean at Southwestern Community College.

• Charles Elders appointed Arnold Ashe, owner of the Cullowhee Cafe.

• Jack Debnam appointed Jeff Brotherton, a resident in Cullowhee who is retired from the military.

• Doug Cody appointed Mike Wade, owner of Rabbit Ridge Apartments in Cullowhee and resident of the apartment complex.

Other appointments include:

• WCU appointed Mark Lord, professor at Western Carolina University and Cullowhee resident.

• Jackson County Commissioner representative Vicki Greene.

Community members could apply for two remaining at-large seats to be appointed by a vote of county commissioners. Applicants include:

• Rick Bennett, retiree and real estate agent in Cullowhee.

• Mike Clark, self-employed resident of Cullowhee community.

• Carl Iobst, Cullowhee resident and Great Smoky Mountains Railroad employee.

• Zara Ellis Sadler, Cullowhee resident and employee at Inter-tribal Center for Social Change.

• Susan Bogardus, resident of Cullowhee and employed at Cherokee Indian Hospital Authority.

• Mae Claxton, Cullowhee resident and WCU English professor.

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