The Cullowhee Planning Council and the Jackson County Planning Board recently held two public hearings on the special permit application for the proposed development “Elevate,” a Planned Unit Development request by University Property Group, LLC for sites located on Lyle Wilson Road.
Some residents of Oak Forest and Forest Hills have attended these hearings to express concerns about this request, as it may have implications for other development requests in Jackson County.
Elevate developer Jamie Lopez, who attended the Dec. 5 hearing, has expressed a desire to be a good neighbor and to build as sustainably as possible around the Cullowhee Creek flood plain. We in Oak Forest are grateful for that. We also have some unanswered questions which we raised at the Dec. 5 quasi-judicial public hearing on the permit request. Because many questions remained unanswered, some of us attended the County Planning Board hearing at the Department on Aging to raise them again.
At the Dec. 5 hearing, the Community Planning Commission decided that Mr. Lopez’s special permit request met the six criteria in the Unified Development Ordinance (see box).
The burden of proof that the proposed development meets these standards is supposed to be on the applicant. However, the applicant did not present any actual evidence for meeting any of these criteria other than f); the applicants did conduct a traffic study indicating that additional traffic congestion generated by the development would be minimal.
While we are sure that the Cullowhee Community Planning Council had the best of intentions, we were sorry to see that it voted that the application met these criteria despite the lack of evidence that it did. We were grateful that the CPC did impose some conditions on the development, somewhat reducing its impervious surfaces in a projected parking area of 118 spaces, but it is disturbing to consider that future applications may also not be held to the standards of evidence laid out in the county ordinances.
For this reason, at the Dec. 19 meeting of the Planning Board, six of us asked the Board either to table approval until the applicant does present some evidence – and we suggested some ways that he could do that – or to approve the permit with conditions which will ensure that the development does meet these criteria.
Specifically, we were concerned about the proposed development’s bare-minimum legally required 25-foot buffer zone around Cullowhee Creek, a designated hatchery-supported trout stream, especially given the recent sediment overflow accident at the Millennial Campus and the heavy sediment load that Cullowhee Creek and the Tuckaseigee River already carry. The Tuckaseigee drives a lot of the Jackson County recreation economy, and we can’t afford for it to become any muddier than it already is. We’d like to see that buffer expanded to 200 feet. Karen Kandl presented some evidence about why that’s a recommended buffer. We feel the 25-foot buffer is inadequate to meet criteria a, b and d.
For similar reasons, we’d like to see the parking areas graveled rather than paved, to reduce the impervious surfaces which produce the most runoff, and the overall parking restricted to be congruous with single family housing, which this development ostensibly is.
Another concern: while these are described as single-family homes and townhouses intended to be affordable housing for Western Carolina University faculty and staff, the proposed pricing points ($280K-$315K) mean that anywhere between 75 and 90 percent of WCU faculty and staff salaries are insufficient to afford those prices … which means that buyers may well be out-of-town owners meaning to rent to students, drastically altering the character of the neighborhood. Brian Gastle presented evidence on affordability; Gene Norton presented the case that this proposed use of the property is injurious to the value of his own property (criterion c).
For this reason, we would like Mr. Lopez’s ultimate homeowners association to restrict the number of properties which can be used as rentals, the number of unrelated people who can dwell on a property, or both. Right now, up to five unrelated people can occupy the same dwelling within three quarters of a mile of campus and still be considered a single family.
Finally, we requested that the Planning Board require Mr. Lopez’s company to hood or shield its door, street and parking lights so that no light rises into the sky above the 90 degree angle, to reduce light pollution.
I know that’s a lot to ask. However, this is my neighbors’ and my effort both to work with developers to make upcoming developments in Jackson as congruous as we can with the overall character of the county, and to encourage developers to work with us.
At the Dec. 19 meeting, the Jackson County Planning Board decided to table approval of the application until their next meeting while they considered what conditions could reasonably be applied to the development. We learned that it was not within the Planning Board’s purview to address the lack of evidence presented at the Dec. 5 CPC hearing, and that the only way to revisit the Dec. 5 ruling would be to file an appeal with the Jackson County Superior Court.
We think it’s possible both to be good neighbors to people coming in and to expect incoming developers to be good neighbors to those of us already in Jackson County. Some people cast this as being “afraid of change,” but we’re not; rather, we want Jackson County residents to have some meaningful voice in the type of change that occurs.
Catherine Carter lives in Oak Forest and is a professor of English at WCU.