The advent of alcohol in Cullowhee is fueling efforts to implement some kind of land-use plan to guide growth in the community around Western Carolina University.
Some speculate that development could be fast and furious in Cullowhee in the wake of last week’s vote that paved the way for bars and convenience stores to peddle booze in the once dry reaches of Jackson County.
“There’s going to be tremendous growth, and Cullowhee is already the fastest-growing township in Jackson County,” said Vincent Gendusa, a recent graduate of Western Carolina University. “That growth needs to be thought out. But, it’s going to be very hard to keep up.”
Cullowhee grew 47 percent between the 2000 U.S. Census and the 2010 U.S. Census. Those numbers, coupled with the results of the alcohol referendum, led Gendusa and other concerned Cullowhee residents to gather this week to discuss the possibility of community-based planning.
“We must be pragmatic and incremental,” County Planner Gerald Green cautioned the group. “I want our effort to be the right way and the correct way and to have the support of the community.”
Cullowhee is not its own town, and in the absence of a county ordinance regulating commercial development, Cullowhee has no way of ensuring commercial growth is in keeping with its character.
Jackson County has precedent, however, for enacting spot land-use plans for specific areas of the county, namely in Cashiers and the U.S. 441 Gateway area.
Green cited the Cashiers plan, created in 2003, as a possible model for Cullowhee.
Community-based planning was accepted in Cashiers, Green said, because there was a “well-formed commercial area with people who were interested in protecting property values.”
Doing the same in Cullowhee will mean gathering the signatures of one-third of the property owners who would be in the planning district. The designated zoning area would have to be at least 640 acres and be made up of at least 10 separate tracts of land. Most of the meeting held this week centered on deciding in a rough fashion which parts of the Cullowhee community ought to be considered.
Jim Calderbank, a Cullowhee property owner who lives in Waynesville, suggested the group consider for inclusion old Cullowhee, Forest Hills and some residential areas that might want to be included.
The group ultimately agreed that any plan would start with WCU, with its 540-acre land mass.
“Use the university as the core and go out in tentacles,” said Roy Osborn, another Cullowhee resident and member of a homegrown Cullowhee revitalization group.
Ultimately, it was decided that Green, with help from Osborn, would rough out a potential designated area.
After the meeting, farmer and Cullowhee resident Curt Collins said that he believes the sell of alcoholic beverages will mean more good for the community than bad.
“I think that it will increase the economic vitality and increase the need for greater community participation in Cullowhee — and I think those are both good things,” Collins said, adding that it will be hard to stay ahead of the growth now that alcohol has been voted in.
“It is going to be slow,” Collins said of the prospect of instituting community-based zoning. “We may have businesses who take advantage of that and outpace us.”
On one hand, the new ability to sell alcohol could fuel local, independent-type restaurants — on the other, it could bring the proliferation of chain restaurants, said Mary Jean Herzog. The chair of the Cullowhee Revitalization Endeavor (CuRvE), a community group dedicated to revitalizing and beautifying Cullowhee, said the potential for businesses to sell. She hopes zoning can be implemented ahead of the curve.
“This could be the most beautiful college town in the country,” Herzog said, citing the great natural beauty of the area.
Taking the political pulse
Jack Debnam, chairman of the county commissioners and a Cullowhee resident, doesn’t believe growth in Cullowhee will explode as a result of the referendum vote, at least not immediately.
“I think we’ll have some places selling beer,” he said in an interview. “But as far as bars, there’s no one there — who would support them in the off-season? I don’t see a big spurt happening.”
That said, Debnam also believes that the county and community does need to get a handle on growth in Cullowhee in the form of community-based planning or something similar.
“I think that’s something we are going to have to look at, whether it’s a business district or if Cullowhee decides to incorporate,” Debnam said.
Vicki Greene, an incoming county commissioner, said she believes this is a critical time for the Cullowhee community. While she believes there may be “a short timeframe for folks to get ready,” movement on the issue is promising.
“The community is taking the lead,” she said. “And in the long term, that is the most effective way of instituting planning efforts.”
Greene, who attended last week’s meeting, won the Democratic primary for commissioner and given the lack of opposition for the seat in the general November election is poised to become a commissioner in December. None of the current commissioners attended the meeting.
But, it appears county commissioners would be willing to consider a land-use plan for Cullowhee if that’s what people there want.
Commissioner Doug Cody said he think there will be “a natural evolution of this thing as it goes on.”
Cody said the important thing is that the Cullowhee community is in the driver’s seat during the process.
“At some point and time, people will want planning. And we’re all for letting people decide — we’re not for ramming anything down anyone’s throat,” Cody said.
The sale of alcoholic beverages, he said, “will help the Cullowhee revitalization effort. I think five years down the road we’ll look back and see this as a very good thing for the county.”
For his part, Commissioner Charles Elders said that he hasn’t yet given thought to whether some form of growth controls are needed in Cullowhee, though he does believe it will become a topic of discussion for commissioners.
Joe Cowan, who did not run for re-election, said that the zoning plan for Cashiers has worked well, and that it is possible something similar could be done for Cullowhee.
Commissioner Mark Jones did not return phone messages requesting comment.
Cashiers: a precedent for community land-use planning
A spot land-use plan was passed in 2003 to govern commercial development in Cashiers, making Jackson one of the first, and still to this day one of the only, counties in WNC to have land-use planning outside town limits.
Cashiers has two districts: a “village central” and a general commercial zone. The Jackson County Board of Commissioners created the five-member Cashiers Area Community Planning Council, which is tasked with reviewing and overseeing development guidelines in concert with the county planning board. The council also votes on requests for conditional uses and variances in Cashiers.
The plan set growth regulations, such as building set backs, lighting and sign standards. The only type of development that was banned outright was cell phone towers in the Village Center district.