“The folks in Cullowhee really need to be heard,” said Scott Baker, chair of the task force. “We want to hear what people’s thoughts are, to voice their opinions on planning in Cullowhee and what they would like to see.”
The planning process could ultimately lead to development regulations — like capping the height of apartment complexes, banning neon lights on bars or requiring developers to build sidewalks.
But for now, the first step for the task force is merely coming up with a general vision and guiding principles for what residents want Cullowhee to look and feel like.
“There are a whole lot of residents out there in Cullowhee who have ideas about what they would like to see Cullowhee become. Here is a venue for them to share their thoughts with us,” said Rick Bennett, another task force member and long-time Cullowhee resident.
A nine-member task force was appointed by Jackson County commissioners this summer to begin the process — with a caveat from commissioners that could provide political cover if needed.
“The charge of the task force was first to determine whether the task force should exist and then if it should move forward,” Baker said.
Members of the task force informally surveyed people they knew or ran into around Cullowhee to gauge support for the process. They found people overwhelmingly favor land-use planning, Baker said.
So the task force voted last month to move forward. One task force member has already emerged as a dissenter and critic, however, voicing opposition to the task force’s direction and penning a letter to the editor in newspapers denouncing the process.
Baker hopes a general vision and a set of guiding principles for Cullowhee can be finished by the end of summer and sent to county commissioners for endorsement.
“Whether they choose to adopt it is their decision,” Baker said.
Then a specific development ordinance may be drafted, a much more involved and technical process.
Cullowhee is not a town, and thus it is up to county commissioners whether development guidelines — or an ordinance — are enacted in the community. Jackson County has two other districts that have land-use planning guidelines: Cashiers and the U.S. 441 corridor leading to Cherokee.
Cullowhee has multiple personalities. First and foremost, it’s a college town dominated by Western Carolina University. It’s a rural outpost with an outdoorsy undercurrent. It shares the same retiree element as the rest of the mountains.
But it’s also just a place where more and more people are choosing to live.
“Cullowhee is a great place to live, and it is finding that balance between growth that is happening in Cullowhee,” said Baker, the dean of Career Technologies at Southwestern Community College.
Baker and his wife are long-time residents of Cullowhee and are now raising their own children there.
Protecting the quality of life for the run-of-the-mill residents of Cullowhee was what motivated Bennett to volunteer for the task force.
“I want to help my community and make it better,” Bennett said. “We need community based planning to make it better.”
Growth catering to college students has been significant in the past few years: giant student apartment complexes, coffee shops, package stores peddling beer and new nightlife spots.
“We’ve had a phenomenal bout of growth in the past two or three or four years,” Bennett said. He lamented, however, that there wasn’t more cooperation and foresight until now.
Land-use planning isn’t just about imposing rules on what commercial development has to look like. It’s also about making sure there’s commuter bike paths, sidewalks and adequate roads for residents and off-campus students to get around safely.
“We have apartment complexes all over the plac,e but we have no sidewalks, and we have narrow roads,” Bennett said.
Want to weigh in?
A public input meeting on land-use planning in Cullowhee will be held at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 21, at Cullowhee Valley School. It will begin with an informal question-and-answer session followed by a formal presentation and audience comments.
People can also submit comments online. A website on the Cullowhee land-use planning initiative allows people to follow the process, including minutes of task force meetings.
Find a link to it from the Jackson County planning department web site, or go directly to sites.google.com/a/jacksonnc.org/cullowhee-community-planning-advisory-committee/home. 828.631.2255.