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Wednesday, 15 February 2017 15:03

High-density apartment proposal a no-go for Sylva

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Sylva’s leaders have long grappled with how to spur the town’s stagnant residential tax base and get more high-density housing within its limits, but when a proposal for a 136-unit apartment complex made its way before town commissioners last week, the board was less than enthusiastic about the concept.

“I do like the thought of high-density housing, but there’s a lot of unknowns here,” said Commissioner David Nestler. “This is such a preliminary plan. They way I see the CUP (conditional-use permit) process is this is our chance to look at your plans and put our conditions on it, and we don’t even know the height of the buildings. It’s difficult to put conditions on really no plans.”

“I don’t like to tell anybody what they can and can’t do with their property, but at the same time I do think that the neighbors should have an input, and that’s a lot of houses on that piece of ground,” concurred Commissioner Harold Hensley. 

The landowner, Monroe resident and former attorney Thomas Caldwell, had purchased the 8.81-acre property in 2005 as an investment. He’s been sitting on it since the recession hit in 2008, and now the market’s to a place that he’d like to get his money out of it. 

“It looks to me like there is a dire need for dwelling units in Jackson County,” he said. “And so my thought was maybe this could help fulfill a need. But it’s got to be economically feasible.”

The property, located along N.C. 107 across from the Print Shak and Perfect Reflections Hair Salon, is zoned such that Caldwell could construct up to 75 units without going through the CUP process. However, he said, building only 75 units wouldn’t justify the investment. He wanted the town board to tell him how many units they’d allow so he could work backward from that number. 

“This is very preliminary,” he told commissioners. “I’m just trying to figure out what the options are.”

The plans called for 136 units with 240 total bedrooms, divided into eight, three-story buildings. The grounds would have 204 parking spaces — the minimum required — and no amenities such as a pool or clubhouse. Because the property is steep with a grade over 15 percent, the plans call for a 50-foot retaining wall. 

However, even if commissioners had approved the concept as presented to them, the plans would have had to change substantially before construction began. Two of the planned parking lots don’t have the emergency turnaround space that’s required, and no open space is identified, though about 3.5 acres would be required for a 136-unit complex.  

Owners of the neighboring properties attended the meeting as well, speaking against the plan. 

“I’m just real nervous about it,” said Sylva resident Irene Ball. “I’m all for development and I’m all for the county growing and I’m all for business adventures and whatnot because I’m a businessperson myself, but I think that many units is just going to be a cluster.”

“I don’t think he’s planned ahead,” said Ann Sellers, who owns 25 acres adjacent to Caldwell’s property. “If you’ve been on 107 you know you’d better start 30 minutes early if you want to go to town at certain times of day.”

Both women also expressed concern that the lack of open space in the plan would result in tenants making their way to adjoining private lands for recreation. 

“If people don’t have any recreation, it’s only common sense you want to be out and exploring the woods,” Sellers said. “I have some nice trails on my property, and I do not want to pay additional homeowner’s insurance on account of unwanted guests.”

The 50-foot wall planned just feet from the property line, they added, was another point of concern. The plans clearly call for the 50-foot wall. But Caldwell threw that detail into question, stating that it would likely be too expensive to build such a structure. 

“I’m not going to build a 50-foot retaining wall,” he said. 

The Sylva Planning Board considered the CUP request at its Jan. 26 meeting, with all but two members of the seven-member board voting to recommend that the town deny the application.

“The planning board liked the concept of increasing the density and encouraging apartments, but they felt that it was too many units and wanted the open space designated,” said Town Manager Paige Dowling. 

The planning board is currently working through town zoning ordinances to make them less restrictive when it comes to building higher-density developments or homes on smaller lots. However, they didn’t see Caldwell’s application as the best way to proceed toward that goal of higher-density housing. 

Nestler told Caldwell that, while he understands that more detailed plans are expensive, they’re necessary if the town is to make any kind of informed decision on the CUP request. 

“I have no idea what this is going to look like,” he said. “The only condition I could imagine we put on it is that we need to see it again. There’s too many ifs for me, too many unknowns.”

The traffic issue also seemed to concern commissioners. 

“It creates a really dangerous situation, and we have to think about the particular case-by-case basis in this proceeding, so with one entrance you have 200 cars leaving at the same time for work every morning or coming home at the same time,” said Commissioner Greg McPherson. “That for me really creates a bottleneck at that particular place on 107.”

As commissioners prepared to vote on the request, Caldwell interjected.

“I think I can save y’all some time,” he said, withdrawing the application. 

However, the apartment complex concept is not necessarily dead. 

“Maybe I’ll see y’all again,” Caldwell said. 

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