ASHLAND — Victims of August's Oak Knoll fire can build an 8-foot concrete wall behind their reconstructed homes, which they believe could prevent another catastrophic blaze, the city's Planning Commission decided Tuesday.
The commission voted 4-1 to allow the 11 residents of Oak Knoll Drive whose homes burned in the fire to build a continuous fence 1.5 feet taller than is normally allowed.
The homeowners hope to begin construction on the wall in about a month, said Dan Thomas, a fire victim who applied for the wall variance on behalf of his neighbors.
All 11 homeowners want to construct the wall, but it's possible some won't be able to afford it, Thomas said.
"We have signatures from every homeowner," Thomas said. "Everybody would like to do it, it just may get down to, can we afford it?"
He and other fire victims plan to ask the City Council at an upcoming meeting to refund some of the planning fees they feel they were unfairly charged to rebuild their homes. Thomas said he spent about $3,000 on fees he feels he shouldn't have been charged because he was rebuilding on an existing lot.
"If, when we go to the City Council, if they'll give us our city development fees back, then we'll be able to use that money to build the wall," Thomas said. "That may make it or break it."
The commission likely will finalize its decision on the wall at its April 26 meeting and the city could issue the homeowners a building permit as early as the second week of May, said Amy Gunter, city assistant planner.
The commission also required the neighbors to make the wall aesthetically pleasing along Interstate 5 by using colored or textured concrete.
"It's kind of a gateway into Ashland, because those properties are the very first you see as you're coming into Ashland," Gunter said. "So the planners were concerned about the aesthetics of it because it's going to be very large and very visible."
Commissioner Melanie Mindlin voted against the project because she was concerned that not all the homeowners will construct the wall, Gunter said.
If some homeowners can't afford the wall, the neighbors may seek donations from community members to help complete the project, Thomas said.
The wall is expected to cost about $80,000 total, or about $6,000 to $7,000 for the average homeowner, depending on backyard length, Thomas said.
Fire officials have said a concrete wall wouldn't have stopped the Oak Knoll fire, because embers from an engulfed barn flew thousands of feet in the air and landed on the roofs of the homes.
However, the fire victims say they believe the wall could slow the spread of a catastrophic fire and prevent small grass fires from igniting homes.
"It would stop a fire from someone throwing a cigarette out on the freeway, onto the dry grass," Thomas said. "It may not stop the monster fire from hell that shows up, but no one can stop everything."
The wall also will reduce traffic noise and reduce trespassing, Thomas said.
"If nothing else," he said, "it's peace of mind."
Hannah Guzik is a reporter for the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach her at 541-708-1158 or firstname.lastname@example.org.