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Brien Lewis: Catawba wants to be good neighbor

By Brien Lewis

Special to the Salisbury Post

Catawba College’s rezoning proposal has had much discussion and press this week. Not all the information has been very clear, the college’s intent has not been covered well, and many of the heated concerns voiced by neighbors at the Planning Board meeting involve properties that the college does not even own.

Contrary to what is apparently popular belief among the college neighbors, Catawba does seek to be a good neighbor and a good steward of its properties. I believe our actions and investments are consistent with that. We appreciate there are still many unanswered questions and unattended concerns. Far from being unwilling to communicate with our neighbors, it was our understanding that the type of preliminary hearing held on Tuesday is how we were supposed to initiate the review process and engage conversation. It is our hope that with continued dialogue and clarity we can achieve a result that will address the concerns of all.

The college’s desire in making this request is threefold: (1) to allow for broader, future use of properties it currently owns; (2) in doing so to help develop and preserve a surrounding neighborhood that presents a positive first impression to prospective students and their families; and (3) to afford environmental protection to college land parcels bordering Grant’s Creek.

There are no plans (nor is there funding available) to do anything but maintain or improve the current structures on any of our existing properties. We simply seek to gather many of these parcels under uniform zoning designations — Institutional Campus and Open Space Preserve. As our Chief Operating Officer Nelson Murphy mentioned at the hearing and was covered in the Post’s reporting on Wednesday, the college does not plan to use these for student housing, but instead would like the flexibility to use some as daytime offices for staff or faculty members. It is our belief that these predominantly daytime/office hour uses would be less disruptive to the residents in the neighborhood than residential occupancies which could have evening or weekend activity. The college’s master plan, which has been publicly available for years on our website, clearly indicates that any new residence halls would be constructed on the existing main campus footprint and would not infringe into the residential neighborhoods.

It is perhaps ironic, but worth mentioning, that if rentals of houses to students is a primary neighborhood concern, the actions proposed here by the college will likely help ameliorate this situation as the college would maintain ownership for use by staff, faculty or daytime offices. Should the college not be able to use some of these properties for these purposes, it would be prudent for the college to divest. This could leave the properties with new owners under a “GR-6” zoning classification. They could choose to rent those properties as some others in the neighborhood have. In other words, the situation which seems to cause residents the most concern would likely be escalated, not abated, by their opposition to our request.

Small private colleges like Catawba are an economic and social benefit to their host communities. At the same time, colleges like Catawba are under many economic pressures that are well documented in the national media. We do want reasonable, incremental and controlled enrollment growth as that will help ensure a sustainable college for generations to come. We do want to maintain and improve the campus, and where we can, the surrounding areas. It in the best interests of the college and central to our ability to attract students.

Nothing that we have proposed here, we believe, is against the long-term interests of the community — in fact, our intent all along has been to develop the institution and campus in ways that are mutually beneficial to the college and our neighbors. We will continue do our best to address all concerns and issues in the hope that we can arrive at an outcome that will benefit everyone.

Brien Lewis is president of Catawba College.

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