ASHLAND — Warning of impacts on an important wild area, prominent environmentalists, neighbors and former Ashland Mayor Cathy Shaw have formed Friends of Westwood Park to oppose the city's plan to swap two acres of park for a ballpark site associated with a Clay Street affordable housing project.

ASHLAND — Warning of impacts on an important wild area, prominent environmentalists, neighbors and former Ashland Mayor Cathy Shaw have formed Friends of Westwood Park to oppose the city's plan to swap two acres of park for a ballpark site associated with a Clay Street affordable housing project.

Opponents are asking the city to find other land to trade because the building of four upscale homes on Westwood would take away most of the flat area, which is good for picnics, games and relaxing with a great view.

"Easy access to wildland areas where wildlife remains in a natural setting is equally important as ball fields," said Shaw, adding that the Westwood property is "precious open space, already protected" in an area where it's not possible to acquire any more.

To get a 10-acre parcel on lower Clay Street, the city recently proposed swapping the Westwood park land to create a five-acre soccer field — and also swap three residential lots on adjacent Strawberry Lane for five acres to create 60 units of affordable housing. The trade with developer Doug Irvine would result in four high-end homes being built in Westwood Park.

"The swap takes away the most visible, accessible and desirable part of the park, the open meadow, which provides space for play, for building a sense of community and the necessary buffer for the natural area values, which are at the heart of Westwood Park," said resident Darren Borgias, who is also southwest Oregon stewardship ecologist for the Nature Conservancy.

Friends of Westwood Park, which has signed up 60 members, will speak against the swap in public hearings before the Parks Commission Monday evening, the Housing Commission on May 8 and the City Council on May 20.

On a walking tour, Borgias pointed out the many native grasses, trees and wildflowers in Westwood Park, most of which slopes into the Wrights Creek ravine and is "a buffer zone, where the Klamath-Siskiyou wildlands spill into the city."

Group member Frank Lang, an emeritus biology professor with Southern Oregon University, said, "The swap would be a loss for the city by degrading a protected natural area, which has high-quality natural habitat. (It) will be greatly impacted if residences are developed in the park."

Naturalist and "Friends" member Pepper Trail said, "I support affordable housing but Ashland people feel very strongly you should not use established park land as a bargaining chip. It's beautiful oak woodland and meadow and we don't have a lot like that left in Ashland."

Another member, Jean Crawford, former city parks commissioner, said, "It's inconsistent with past parks and open space planning and vision to trade irreplaceable, previously dedicated park land with native plants and wildlife habitat and great potential for a range of recreation." Crawford said the city has "a range of creative ways" to get the Clay Street land.

However, Tom Crawford, president of the Ashland Community Land Trust, said he worked for a year and a half on making the deal for the trade, and "I personally think it's a great idea and great for the environment. It's a sustainable solution for everyone. "¦ The environment is one spoke in the wheel and the other spokes are the community, the government, the animals — and it's for the community now to decide if it's a good idea."

City Parks and Recreation Director Don Robertson said the city "assumes there will be impact to natural areas and wildlife — there's no denying that. "¦ It's part of the trade-off process, but the other side of the coin is you're preserving five acres of open space and an acre of wetland (on Clay Street)."

The city is inventorying city-owned land, a process to be completed at the end of June, but Robertson said no other city land has been identified that is valuable and located in a spot attractive for trade to a developer.

Shaw, who served as mayor when the Westwood land was acquired and when the meals tax was passed to raise funds for open space, said the city shouldn't remove any land from its park inventory or encourage building in a wildlands interface area, which is also vulnerable to catastrophic wildfire.

She said the meals tax fund is spent and will sunset in a few years, but the city has "many tools in its kit" for funding the Clay Street park land, including asking voters for a levy or mounting a campaign for private contributions.

Although designated as park land, the Westwood property was not purchased with money from the city's 5 percent meals tax. The Strawberry-Westwood properties were bought in the 1980s for $90,000 for a water tank that was built elsewhere.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.