Complaining they'd been kept in the dark, then suddenly forced to choose between park lands and affordable housing, a score of Ashland residents urged the city Parks Commission not to trade two acres of pristine Westwood Park to get land for a soccer field adjacent to proposed Clay Street workforce housing.

Complaining they'd been kept in the dark, then suddenly forced to choose between park lands and affordable housing, a score of Ashland residents urged the city Parks Commission not to trade two acres of pristine Westwood Park to get land for a soccer field adjacent to proposed Clay Street workforce housing.

It was the first of several public hearings on what's turning out to be a divisive issue around the swap, which was announced two weeks ago, after a year and a half of negotiating with the owner of the 10-acre Clay Street parcel.

The hearing was continued and no decision was made. Parks and Recreation Director Don Robertson (see correction note below) did say that, if the city traded the park land, it would kick in an additional $330,000, pending final appraisals.

A bevy of Westwood-Strawberry Lane residents praised the serenity and rich wildlife of the quiet park, which straddles Wrights Creek.

Neighbor Ken Barnes warned that "the groundswell has just begun. It's touched on emotional issues. There's going to be a whole lot of other people involved."

In a crowd of 50 people, only one spoke in favor of the swap — Geppetto's Restaurant owner Ron Roth (see correction note below), who said, "The community has the opportunity to trade two acres where there's a lot of low-density housing and existing park land (including nearby Strawberry-Hald Park) for five acres where there's lots of development."

Roth added, "Look at the common good in a neighborhood that's short of park land."

Citing "strong feelings" about the proposed trade, resident Paul Hwoschinsky said he wondered when he built a home there 20 years ago, if the city-owned open space could be swapped.

"You're our primary defense," he told the commissioners. "I'm for affordable housing, but I'd like it to be up or down on affordable housing" rather than choosing between that and parks.

Resident Darren Borgias, an ecologist for the Nature Conservancy, said the canyon behind the four proposed building lots is one of the few riparian zones in the region without nonnative English Ivy, Himalayan blackberries and periwinkle vines, and is a mating ground for blacktailed jackrabbits.

"It presents an opportunity as a destination for environmental education. You can't satisfy the need for nature by going to a ballpark," Borgias said, noting that the newly formed Friends of Westwood Park has 250 members.

Neighbor Keith Baldwin said that the city "breaks trust" with the community when it treats park land as an "investment account du jour" that it can trade when the need comes up — and then do it behind closed doors because it involves real estate transactions, which are protected by executive session laws.

"Then you spring it on us, with no citizen participation, plus you commingle parks and affordable housing and set those issues against each other," Baldwin said.

Scott Dixon, one of several in attendance who did not live near the park, called it "really beautiful park land" and noted that 100 years from now it won't be available — and commissioners should try to imagine what Lithia Park would look like now if the same values were applied during its formation.

Suzanne Frey, a resident of the Oak Knoll subdivision, said Ashland's quality of life is founded on its parks — and being a "beautiful, small community with nature."

At the close of the hearing, commissioner JoAnne Eggers reminded residents that, under the proposed deal, park land would be traded only for park land, not for affordable housing. Three residential lots on Strawberry Lane would be traded for the affordable housing land on Clay.

"It's really a beautiful piece of property," Eggers said of the Westwood land.

The Parks Commission will hear more public testimony on the swap at its June 23 meeting. The Housing Commission will hold a hearing on it May 8 and the City Council on May 20.

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

Corrections: The original version of this story misspelled the names of Ron Roth and Don Robertson. This version has been corrected.