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Wednesday, 05 October 2011 13:21

Forest Hills doesn’t want student housing complex

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Village of Forest Hills leaders are saying no thanks to a Charlotte company that wanted to build luxury student apartments on a 19.5-acre tract in the tiny town across the highway from Western Carolina University.

This does not mean that the 200-unit, $25-million development couldn’t be built elsewhere in Jackson County, just not in Forest Hills’ town limits. Planner Gerald Green said the only restrictions on developments of this type are in Cashiers, the county’s four municipalities and the U.S. 441 corridor.

Developer Shannon King told The Smoky Mountain News late last week that if Forest Hills said no, she would look elsewhere in the area for a suitable site. King needed Forest Hills’ to grant an exemption from the community’s zoning laws for the development to move forward there.

Before settling on the Forest Hills site, Monarch Ventures had scouted the vacant hotel — locally dubbed the ‘ghostel’ — on the main commercial drag of N.C. 107 in Sylva. This was intended to be a Clarion Inn, the town’s first name-brand hotel, but the developers ran out of money and abandoned the project, which was foreclosed on by the bank that held the construction loan. Michelle Masta of Skyros Investments is marketing the unfinished hotel shell, and she confirmed Monarch Venture’s prior interest. The hotel is mired in litigation from a contractor who wasn’t paid in full; it can’t be sold until the legal issues are resolved.

Forest Hills council members, meeting Friday in a more than five-hour visioning session, agreed that this type of student development is at odds with their vision of tranquil life in the village.

The community incorporated in 1997 expressly to keep students out. This included zoning out the possibility of large student complexes, and setting restrictions on the number of students living together in a rental house. That stance has clearly softened during the intervening years for this set of council members, at least. They noted that 50 to 75 students currently do live in Forest Hills (many in a motel there) and are part of that community. But a huge development, as proposed by Monarch Ventures, seemed more than Forest Hills leaders were willing to embrace.

“It’s not that we are anti-student because we are against a complex,” Council Member Suzanne Stone said. “Saying ‘no’ to Monarch would not mean saying ‘no’ to WCU.”

A recent survey sent to Forest Hills residents recorded little support for the development. Out of 59 responses, 38 noted they “strongly disagree” with such a development, eight disagreed, six had no opinion, two agreed and five “strongly agree.”

 

Track record

Additionally, Forest Hills council members cited concerns about the background — or lack of background — of the company involved, Monarch Ventures.

North Carolina incorporation records show that Monarch Ventures came into existence just 13 months ago, in September 2010; and that it has no record as a company building these types of student-based developments. This raised questions about how Monarch Ventures had presented itself to Forest Hills leaders — as a veteran student-housing development company.

The company might be new, but King, the woman who owns and launched Monarch Ventures, in fact does have an extensive, national background of building private student housing. King, until less than a year ago, was executive vice president and chief marketing officer of Campus Crest Communities, a company also based in Charlotte. Campus Crest developed and owns 32 student-housing complexes nationwide.

The company is the subject of myriad complaints regarding its housing. Additionally, a federal lawsuit filed in Mecklenburg County by a former employee accused Campus Crest of having a sexually hostile and demeaning work environment.

According to court documents, company officers directed top employees to “hire predominantly young, white women to available positions at the company’s various residential rental properties.”

Council Member Clark Corwin showed fellow board members a copy of a newspaper article that quoted from the lawsuit. King, according to court papers, is alleged to have said: “We have Southern investors; they do not like for us to hire blacks.”

“I can’t imagine that in this day and age,” Mayor Jim Wallace said in response.

“I don’t think they need anymore time at our meetings — we’re done,” Stone said.

After some discussion about how best to pull the plug on King’s development plans for Forest Hills, Council Member Gene Tweedy said: “Just tell her, ‘The community is not interested.’”

Problems with Campus Crest buildings, called “The Grove” at the company’s multitude of student housing complexes across the nation, include reports that students trying to move in were told they couldn’t because the apartments weren’t finished on schedule.

An “anti-Grove” group is active on Facebook, primarily populated by disgruntled student renters.

Asheville has a “The Grove” complex on Bulldog Drive, near UNC-Asheville, owned by Campus Crest.

“Student complaints from these complexes are the same across the country,” wrote Peggy Loonan, who is leading an effort to prevent Campus Crest from building in Fort Collins, Colo., in a Feb. 11 guest article for the Northern Colorado Business Report. “Students, not professional leasing agents, manage onsite leasing offices. Maintenance is slow to respond if at all; appliances don’t work; apartments aren’t cleaned between tenancies and mattresses are soiled. Move-in dates on signed leases are pushed back because construction isn’t complete. Students describe hearing other tenants having sex. Students turn off heat to stay within their allotted utility amount and report being denied copies of utility bills.”

King, contacted late last week, was eager to distance herself from Campus Crest and its work record.

“Quite frankly, that’s why I’m no longer with Campus Crest,” she said.

King said that Monarch Ventures is committed to building near Western Carolina University.

“We absolutely want to be in the Western community,” she said.

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