Residents protest student apartments on Speedwell

This story was written by Tanner Hall, originally published in The Sylva Herald.

Longtime residents in a small Cullowhee neighborhood next to Western Carolina University worry that additional student housing in the Speedwell area could lead to tragedy.

A developer wants to build apartments near Speedwell Acres. Residents say two-lane Speedwell Road cannot handle additional traffic.

The narrow road connects WCU’s Ramsey Center with N.C. 107, across from the Cullowhee Recreation Center.

“On Dec. 1, I was hit by a car while running,” Cullowhee resident Sandy Davis told planning officials on Feb. 9.

“Fortunately, I only had a broken wrist, but I’m afraid a day may come when a pedestrian is killed,” she said.

She pointed to Ledbetter Road, where Daniel Brown, 40, was killed in a hit-and-run last summer, as an example of what could happen. When hit, Brown was walking the two-lane Ledbetter Road, also in Cullowhee. There are no sidewalks on Ledbetter or Speedwell.

Following Brown’s death, local officials, citing a boom in student housing along the narrow riverside byway, secured $250,000 in state funding to build a connector. Board of Transportation member Jack Debnam says adding the connector should take some pressure off Ledbetter, making the road safer.

“I’m hoping action will be taken quickly in this situation, too, in order to prevent a tragedy instead of having to react to it,” Davis told county leaders.

Many Speedwell Acres residents attended the Feb. 9 meeting to oppose the proposed four-building, 72-bedroom multi-family housing development.

“It is the most dangerous road,” resident Beth Budden said. “There are blind curves, students are walking and cars are flying around. I run also, and I see Sandy running all the time. She’s absolutely right. It’s just a matter of time before somebody is killed.”

Officials agreed the area’s infrastructure, like many residential pockets surrounding the university, isn’t equipped to handle the traffic that follows student housing.

The neighborhood’s residents already share Speedwell Road with students living at the 459-bed Catamount Peak apartment complex.

“I drive on Speedwell Road sometimes,” said planning board member Vickey Wade. “People walk on it, they jog on it … There’s no shoulder at all. It’s just ridiculous to have that many people living in that area.”

“It’s basically Ledbetter Road, part two,” Chairman Scott Baker said.

Still, the proposed development, from JOMCO Inc., headquartered in Gainesville, Georgia, is now a go. Officials on Feb. 9 approved the project unanimously, because it meets Jackson County’s regulatory requirements.

Its tentative name? Masterpiece Drive.


Showing up

Davis and Budden were two of 11 local residents to speak at the planning board meeting.

There was representation from nine of Speedwell Acres’ 18 households, said Stephanie Pendergast, who moved to the area in 2005 to attend WCU.

Pendergast lived in apartments and said she understands the need for student housing; however, next to this neighborhood isn’t the right place, she said.

“When you bring in an apartment complex of that size, with that many college students, you know what’s going to happen,” Pendergast said. “Would you feel safe if your 7-year-old was running along the road, with college students driving up and down like NASCAR drivers? I don’t think you would.”

Residents raised concerns about their property values.

“When I heard about this (development) maybe happening, I could just see our property kind of going down to nothing,” said Donna Savage, who’s lived in Speedwell Acres since 1988. “Our house is kind of all we have. We’re working-class people, and that is our only asset. To think that for 30 years, living there, putting time into that place, hopefully for our kids to have a little something when we’re gone, that’s just looking more and more bleak.”

“My wife and I are getting up there in years, and we’re going to downsize soon,” said Robert McLaughlin, president of the Speedwell Acres homeowners’ association. “Am I going to get my money out of my house, or am I going to sell at a loss?”

“We have invested our lives in this beautiful subdivision,” said JoAnn McLaughlin. “I respect that students will come to WCU, and I know it’s going to grow, but how many more apartments do we have to have there? How many more?”

JoAnn McLaughlin moved to Speedwell Acres in 1982.

“We were just starting our family with three children,” she said. “We have a wonderful life and have since then, because all of us are close knit. We have work days throughout the year where we all get together and take care of each other’s properties. I’m concerned about our neighborhood going downhill.”

Julie Phillips has lived in Speedwell Acres since she was 2 years old. She grew up, bought a home in the neighborhood and raised a family.

Phillips, along with Mary Youmans, who has lived in Speedwell Acres since 1984, learned about the proposed development during the late afternoon Feb. 9, after reading an article in the Herald about the meeting.

A couple of hours later, half of the neighborhood was primed to attend.

“Obviously, we care very much about our neighborhood,” Pendergast said.


How it happened

Speedwell Acres residents questioned why the property eyed for development is zoned for commercial use.

There was a storage facility located on the property when zoning standards were hammered out for Cullowhee in 2014 and into 2015.

“We looked at the existing usage of parcels and tried to adhere to that, for the most part. Some were changed and some were not,” Baker said. “The property owners were involved in that process. If it was zoned commercial, and somebody’s saying, ‘I want to continue using this as commercial,’ generally we weren’t going to say, ‘no.’”

Residents said they were not adequately informed of the zoning efforts.

“I feel everyone’s frustrations,” Baker said. “I live in Cullowhee, and I live adjacent to where a bunch of apartments were developed before there was any zoning. It was completely frustrating and infuriating.” (The planning board chairman lives in University Heights, a residential neighborhood off Ledbetter Road.)

“The reason the Cullowhee Planning Area was put into place was to have some set of standards. We met and had so many meetings. It’s frustrating to feel that there wasn’t an awareness that that was going on,” he said.


The vote

Masterpiece Drive will be built on a 3.51-acre tract. Each of its four buildings will be about 20-feet tall.

The county’s subdivision ordinance, along with Cullowhee’s zoning standards, were applied to the development, according to Senior Planner John Jeleniewski. This requires the developer to construct a sidewalk along Speedwell Acres Road, which turns off of Speedwell Road, for the length of the property line; build two retaining walls – designed by a licensed engineer – to reduce the amount of land disturbance; and account for a 20-foot landscape buffer and open-space regulations.

The Tuckaseigee Water and Sewer Authority will handle utilities, Jeleniewski said.

County Planning Director Mike Poston explained that the project’s zoning classification is “permitted use by right,” which allowed the developer to bypass approval from the Cullowhee Planning Council, because the proposed project met all criteria outlined in the zoning standards.

Poston said the project came to the planning board because it triggered a subdivision review process for multi-family housing with more than 60 units. “If it were 59 beds, this wouldn’t have risen to the level of planning board review,” he said.

Officials agreed that the developer’s plans meet county guidelines.

“At this point, we can’t take any action that’s going to change zoning,” Baker said. “We just have to address it under the current ordinances that we have.”


Searching for solutions

After approving the Speedwell Acres development, officials voted to have county Manager Don Adams request speed-limit and alternate-access studies from the N.C. Department of Transportation, a move recommended by the Cullowhee planning group.

Officials said that building an alternate road, either for Speedwell Acres or for Masterpiece Drive, could do for those communities what many hope a connector road will do for Ledbetter.

Planning board members suggested that it’s WCU’s responsibility to help tame the impact its growth is having on area infrastructure, especially with the university’s new low-cost tuition plan set to begin next fall.

N.C. Promise, designed to make college more affordable, will lower the per-semester tuition cost for in-state students to $500 at WCU and two other state institutions. The rate for out-of-state students will drop to $2,500.

WCU administrators say they don’t yet know how this will affect student enrollment.

“The university is putting a lot of pressure on surrounding neighborhoods,” planning board member Wade said. “It seems that maybe they could make some inroads with DOT. It could really be a model for college campuses statewide.”

Poston said there are ongoing discussion with WCU officials.

“We are talking with the university about trying to plan for these mobility issues,” he said. “To say that they’re not doing anything, I don’t think that would be casting the conversation in the right light.”

The challenge, the county planner said, is that Cullowhee isn’t an incorporated municipality. “I don’t believe that there’s another major university in the state of North Carolina that exists outside of municipal limits,” he said.

The university has evolved over the years in a rural setting, Poston said, without thought of sidewalks or bike lanes.

“I think that we’re trying to move in that direction. Those conversations are happening,” he said.

The first step for WCU was active participation, the planning board chairman said.

That happened in January, when county commissioners approved adding a non-voting representative from WCU to the Cullowhee Planning Council, appointed by the chancellor. Mike Byers, WCU’s vice chancellor for administration and finance, now sits on the board.

Earlier this month, according to Baker, when the Cullowhee group discussed the Speedwell Acres development, Byers said that because of student growth, only 30 percent of WCU students live on campus. Most universities are at about 50 percent, Byers said.

“That’s really pushing development out to adjacent areas,” Baker said. “All of the apartment complexes are at capacity.”