Forest Hills in holding pattern on WCU annexationWritten by Quintin Ellison
A timetable is still being hammered out on when Forest Hills leaders will receive a formal proposal from Western Carolina University on annexing land for a commercial development.
WCU wants to develop 35 acres of its main campus into a “town center,” which would be leased to restaurants, bookstores, coffee shops and the like, as well as condos and a few university offices. Forest Hills has been asked to annex the land into its town limits.
Forest Hills Mayor Jim Wallace indicated last month that town aldermen were expecting to receive information from WCU soon on how the town could best accommodate a mixed-use land plan.
Tom McClure, director of the office of partnership development for the WCU Millennial Initiative, said there are some “internal discussions” taking place, and that it could be a matter of weeks before the necessary documents are ready for review.
McClure said he has prepared a draft, but that it is not yet ready for review. McClure said a 20-year or more development agreement is key. A “planned-unit development” would eliminate the need for each new business involved to get individual approval from the town.
Chancellor John Bardo has said WCU will ask town leaders to adopt wholesale the university’s design for a town center.
WCU’s desire to create a commercial hub and vibrant college town hinges on its tiny neighbor. Cullowhee is not currently incorporated as a town, and as a result, stores and restaurants can’t sell beer, wine or liquor drinks. That has proved a major stumbling block in attracting commercial ventures typically associated with college towns.
The Village of Forest Hills consists of fewer than 400 residents. Most are current or retired faculty and staff of the university. The town incorporated in 1997, mainly to prevent an influx of students from taking over the community.
Clark Corwin, a council member for Forest Hills, said he would like to see his town receive extensive feedback from residents before any decisions are made. This includes, he said, whether to allow alcoholic beverages to be sold.
He said Southwestern Development Commission, a state regional planning and development organization, offers a tidy process through the Mountain Landscapes Initiative that might work well for Forest Hills. A toolbox has been developed offering best practices and guidelines for sustainable growth.
“I think everyone is of a mind to have a public forum, but I want something more than just a public hearing,” Corwin said.