Displaying items by tag: forest hills

Forest Hills residents and town leaders overwhelmingly opposed purchasing a 60-acre abandoned golf course in the middle of their community at a public hearing last week.

The clock was ticking. There were just two days to go for mayor candidates to step up to the plate in the small village of Forest Hills — and still no takers.

Presented with a tempting yet expensive offer, the Village of Forest Hills has to choose whether to buy an abandoned golf course in the center of its small community, or stand by and watch it be developed.

fr forestry clubHaywood Community College leaders are collecting donations to give its lumberjack club a facility worthy of its prestige.

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.

The Village of Forest Hills wants to control its future by possibly acquiring a 74-acre, abandoned golf course located within its borders.

If the privately owned property is obtained, the town’s leaders indicated that they might try to offset the purchase cost by developing 25 acres or so into cluster housing for Western Carolina University staff and faculty, or for active senior-aged residents.

The owner, at last check, was asking upwards of $1.3 million for the property, but Forest Hills leaders said perhaps there might be room for negotiation on that amount. Or, certain tax breaks may be available that could help knock it down.

“I’d like to see us pursue this aggressively,” Council Member Suzanne Stone told fellow board members, who gathered Friday for a facilitated strategic-planning session.

Stone echoed board member Clark Corwin in saying that she could envision the property serving Forest Hills as an important community venue. Stone mentioned the possibility of musical events; Corwin said he pictured a small arboretum.

Any residential development on a portion of the defunct golf course would be individual houses, not a large-scale student complex as proposed recently by a campus-housing company (see related article). A community survey polling residents about such developments largely received negative marks.

A residential planned unit development, however, could prove a benefit to the community and an overall land-value enhancer for Forest Hills residents, County Planner Gerald Green said. Cluster housing such as this generally includes green space and a community garden.

But money is a problem for the tiny incorporated entity, which has only a few hundred residents.

“We don’t have funds, and we don’t want higher taxes — we’re stuck,” Mayor Jim Wallace said.

Green said that wasn’t necessarily true.

“The challenge is to create a vision that people will buy into,” the county planner said.

Green suggested Forest Hills combine strategic efforts with WCU, which could advertise as a university with top-notch learning and cultural opportunities for seniors. That population, in turn, could become a source of funding for the cash-strapped institution through class fees or donations through a college-linked retirement community. The university is working on a new strategic plan now. Stone, who sits on a WCU subcommittee working on development issues as part of that plan, said she’d touch on the possibilities with her subcommittee members.

 

WCU annexation decision delayed indefinitely

Annexing a 35-acre parcel of Western Carolina University is off the table for now, the Village of Forest Hill leaders said Friday during a strategic-planning session.

“That is moot until after WCU’s strategic planning session,” Mayor Jim Wallace said.

Former Chancellor John Bardo last year asked the tiny town, which is across the highway from the university, to annex part of campus to further his dream of a “Town Center” for unincorporated WCU. The idea was to pave the way for legal sales of alcoholic beverages, which currently aren’t allowed outside town limits in Jackson County, in hopes it would entice new restaurants and bars to rectify the lack of nightlife around the university.

Since then, Bardo has retired and a new chancellor, David Belcher, has taken over. Belcher has initiated new strategic planning for the university; the state has slashed WCU’s budget in the name of cost-savings measures; and Jackson County commissioners have said they’ll place a countywide alcohol referendum on the ballot next year, which if it passes, could eliminate any need for annexation since alcohol sales would become legal countywide if approved by voters.

A Charlotte company wants to invest $25 million in a 400-person housing development for Western Carolina University students who are looking for the finer things in life.

Monarch Ventures has asked the Village of Forest Hills, a tiny incorporated community next to WCU, to allow it to use what’s known as the 19.5-acre Valhalla tract. Monarch Ventures wants to buy the tract, located on North Country Club Drive, from owner Catamount Hollow LLC.

Town leaders are expected to discuss the request, and residents’ reactions that were gathered via a community survey, on Friday during a board retreat.

Shannon King of Monarch Ventures said this would be a “premier” student housing complex, offering amenities that aren’t currently available, including a clubhouse, pool, tanning beds, exercise programs and more.

“There’s a need for quality housing at Western Carolina University,” King said. “And this could be a recruitment and retention tool for the university.”

WCU has experienced significant growth in the past decade. Spokesman Bill Studenc said as the university continues growing enrollment — a stated goal of new Chancellor David Belcher, who has noted state funding is tied to those numbers — there is a corresponding need to house those students.

“I know that right now we are at capacity,” Studenc said.

King has assured Village leaders that Monarch Ventures is “sensitive to concerns about noise and traffic,” and would provide “on-site, 24-7 management for safety.” The group also offers programs for students living with the complex. King said rental rates would be comparable to residential dorm rates at WCU.

Monarch Ventures has just broken ground on a similar project at Coastal Carolina University in Conway, S.C.

Kolleen Begley, who lives in Forest Hills and serves as the community’s finance officer, welcomes the prospect of upscale housing in the small residential village.

“Not everyone in the Village thinks students are a nuisance,” Begley said. “The Village is a municipality, not a retirement community. I have more faith in our young adults attending college than what has been depicted at monthly meetings from the only people who have time to attend. I support the university we chose to move across from. WCU is vital to our local economy. So are jobs and tax money.”

Forest Hills incorporated in 1997 for one primary purpose: keeping student housing out. The 350 to 400 people living in the Village of Forest Hills were clear at that time on not wanting students taking over their community.

The newly sworn town board’s first act after the referendum to incorporate passed? Adopting a building moratorium on everything but single-family, site-built, residential houses with at least 2,000 feet of heated space. The board was confident there weren’t many students who could afford that kind of housing.

King said ideally construction would start in November, but that she believes Monarch Ventures — if town leaders give the OK — would start phasing-in the project beginning next year.

Mark Teague, zoning administrator for Forest Hills, said that the development group would need a use permit and perhaps a variance from the town.

“They’ve got their ducks in a row,” he said, “and I think this is the No. 1 spot where they want to do it.”

Looming budget cuts to the state’s higher education system won’t interfere with Western Carolina University’s goal of creating a town to call its own, the man tasked with drawing up a project agreement said this week.

Tom McClure, director of the office of partnership development for the WCU Millennial Initiative, also said if the project for a Town Center moves forward it would be on the financial back of a yet-unidentified private developer. Not, he said, through or at the expense of the university or state.

North Carolina is facing a $3.7 billion shortfall. Budget cuts are expected to extend to the University of North Carolina system, which includes WCU. In anticipation, the cost of attending the university would increase 4.45 percent for the 2011-12 academic year under a plan approved this month by the WCU Board of Trustees.

McClure debunked any idea that the Town Center concept would lose steam because of the departure of Chancellor John Bardo. The chancellor, who developed and spearheaded the possibility of developing 35 acres on WCU’s main campus, announced he would retire next summer.

Key to the Town Center moving forward is whether the Village of Forest Hills agrees to annex the land. 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 a college town.

Nearby 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.

 

What’s in a name?

A draft agreement between WCU and Forest Hills obtained last week by The Smoky Mountain News calls for a referendum on mixed drinks, beer and wine if the tiny incorporated community moves forward with the plan.

The letter of intent also suggests Forest Hills would lose its name for that of the “Town of Cullowhee.” And that it would adopt a “mutually acceptable mixed-use zoning district ordinance based on an initial draft provided by WCU.”

WCU Chancellor John W. Bard sent the letter, dated Dec. 6, to Jim Wallace, mayor of Forest Hills.

Wallace said this week he’s hoping fellow Forest Hills leaders give the project a green light.

“I myself think it would be extremely good for the community and the Village of Forest Hills,” he said. “But we don’t know the details yet. And I don’t vote.”

Wallace said council members would review the draft “paragraph by paragraph” at its upcoming January meeting.

Bardo, in the draft, noted: “The purpose of this letter of intent is to provide the framework for negotiations between WCU and Forest Hills regarding a proposed transaction, and outline material terms and the basis upon which a definitive development agreement may be negotiated and prepared for execution by Forest Hills and WCU.”

The development agreement would be for 20 years unless the two parties mutually agreed to terminate the bargain.

“The Town Center may involve construction of up to 2 million square feet of building space. … Building space currently contemplated includes, without limitation, general retail business, residential space, food services business and entertainment business. The parties agree that large, ‘big box’ retail establishments will not be permitted in the Town Center,” the letter states.

 

 

Not everyone thrilled with WCU idea

Robin Lang, Cullowhee businessperson and community advocate:

“I was shocked to read WCU presented Forest Hills its proposal for a ‘Town Center.’ The nerve to call it a ‘Town Center.’ … A ‘Town Center’ without free enterprise? Chancellor John Bardo stated at the first meeting with Forest Hills that the square-footage prices would be too high for a local business to afford. A ‘Town Center’ where within only alcohol sales are allowed? How will our small business community fairly compete with that? Let’s get a countywide alcohol referendum on the next ballot and take a vote. Level the playing field or we will watch more of our local family businesses go under and fold at the mercy of corporate entities and the university once again.

“What about our economic climate? To create service jobs? For whom? The people the university and Forest Hills put out of business? Maybe for the faculty and staff they lay off next year due to the extreme budget cuts. Our community doesn’t need more underemployment. … Is the fate of Cullowhee and Jackson County allowed to lie only in the hands of WCU, the 400 residents of Forest Hills and its board members? The rest of the community, the vested taxpaying, property-owning community needs representation and has a right to a voice.

“What concerns me most is when I think about connecting all the dots of recent events. Our new county commissioners ran on the Tea Party ticket, which professes that people take back their government. Yet the new commissioners have set Mondays at 2 p.m. for their public meetings, which will exclude most of the pesky working public. … I’m concerned that neither WCU nor Forest Hills made this document public. This is public information. ... What else are they thinking and not telling us?”

Read the draft agreement at www.smokymountainnews.com/multimedia/FOREST_HILLS_DRAFT.pdf

A draft agreement between Western Carolina University and the Village of Forest Hills calls for a referendum on mixed drinks, beer and wine if the tiny incorporated community agrees to help create a new “Town Center” for its large neighbor.

The letter of intent, obtained Friday by The Smoky Mountain News, also suggests Forest Hills lose its name for that of the  “Town of Cullowhee,” and it adopt a “mutually acceptable mixed-use zoning district ordinance based on an initial draft provided by WCU.”

READ THE DRAFT

WCU Chancellor John W. Bard sent the letter, dated Dec. 6, to Jim Wallace, mayor of Forest Hills.

“The purpose of this letter of intent is to provide the framework for negotiations between WCU and Forest Hills regarding a proposed transaction, and outline material terms and the basis upon which a definitive development agreement may be negotiated and prepared for execution by Forest Hills and WCU.”

The development agreement would be for 20 years unless the two parties mutually agreed to terminate the bargain.

“The Town Center may involve construction of up to 2 million square feet of building space. … Building space currently contemplated includes, without limitation, general retail business, residential space, food services business and entertainment business. The parties agree that large, ‘big box’ retail establishments will not be permitted in the Town Center,” the letter states.

WCU wants to develop 35 acres on its main campus. The university’s desire to create a commercial hub and vibrant college town hinges on Forest Hills. 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 a college town.

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.

Discussions about some combination of a merger and annexation have come to the forefront since summer. A group called the Cullowhee Revitalization Endeavor (CuRvE) formed almost three years ago and began looking at ways to bring life to the community surrounding the WCU campus. CuRvE opened talks with Forest Hills this summer, and now the university and the town are talking directly to each other about the possibilities for creating a new town.

It just wouldn’t be the Jackson County we’ve all come to know and love if there wasn’t some kind of community-action group watchdogging Western Carolina University’s attempts to create its very own incorporated town.

But it’s Jackson County, so of course, there’s now such a group — with the working name of the Cullowhee Coordinating Committee.

“The school, in the past, has behaved as if this is Cullowhee,” Robin Lang, the group’s spokeswoman, said one day last week, gesturing toward the university.

But, she argued, that’s not all of Cullowhee. The people who live in the area are Cullowhee, too. So are the local businesses, and the many people who have invested time and emotional energy into the university and into the area around WCU. All of these people and institutions, Lang said, deserve to be heard before something is done to change what they claim as theirs, too.

Some issues the group might look into:

Possible legal sales of alcoholic beverages — how will local restaurants compete if they can’t do the same? Are there Cherokee archaeological sites? Any Indian burials around WCU, or perhaps an old village or two? Environmental questions also abound — does the proposed Town Center have wetlands within its 35-acre tract, like some are claiming gave way during the building of the Ramsey Center? Are there ways to accomplish revitalization goals along Old Cullowhee Road without annexation?

A bit of background.

WCU, under the leadership of Chancellor John Bardo, is attempting to pair with its tiny neighbor, the 1997-incorporated Village of Forest Hills, to create a college town that would probably be called Cullowhee. Forest Hills is made up of fewer than 400 residents, most being current or retired faculty and staff of the university. (In an interesting twist of irony, the Village of Forest Hills  — which has no town hall or services to speak of, though it does contract some police protection — incorporated for one simple reason: to stave off students from taking over the community.)

WCU wants Forest Hills to voluntarily annex university land as the town center. There, Bardo has said, there would be commercial development, with leases extended to restaurants, bookstores, coffee shops and such, as well as condos and a few university offices. That vision has not included much in the way of local businesses — franchise restaurants have been mentioned, not such campus fixtures as the Mad Batter Bakery and Café or its ilk.

WCU bought 2.2 acres on Centennial Drive in January 2007 that houses the Mad Batter, a Subway sandwich shop, and several other commercial businesses.

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.

 

Get involved

The next meeting of the Cullowhee Coordinating Committee will be Thursday, Nov. 18, at 2 p.m. in WCU’s Honors College conference room. The meeting will last an hour.

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