ASHLAND — The complex affordable housing land swap deal here has just gotten more complex.

ASHLAND — The complex affordable housing land swap deal here has just gotten more complex.

The developer in the proposed trade of Westwood land for Clay Street land has backed out of the deal and, much to the outrage of Strawberry Lane neighbors, the city is moving ahead with studying a partition of the Westwood land to get cash for creating a park next to proposed affordable housing on Clay.

At a public hearing Monday, the city Parks and Recreation Commission told staff to study the partitioning of two acres of Westwood Park — which has become a flashpoint for Ashland environmentalists and neighbors — to raise about $1.6 million toward purchase of 5 acres on Clay, next to a proposed city affordable housing project.

Westwood neighbors told the panel that if Clay Street is important for its affordable housing goals, the city should find other ways to buy the land rather than destroy wildlife habitat on Westwood, but parks commissioners responded that all money sources, including Systems Development Charges, the meals tax and the general fund are dry for such purposes.

"Westwood is not just an asset you can buy or sell. We are people. We are a community. If you really want to be commissioners, you have to look at the long-term involvement of the public in this," said neighbor Paul Hwoschinsky, noting that more than 400 people had joined the Friends of Westwood Park, opposing the swap.

Following a lengthy discussion of how to divide and sell the land, naturalist Pepper Trail said, "You basically treat this property as what you can get out of it, as a bargaining chip. It's an inappropriate attitude. You're proposing that we dispose of an extremely valuable park property whose sale price is probably not sufficient to (buy the Clay property)."

After much upbraiding from the public, ommissioner Rich Rosenthal countered that neighbors' testimony "set a record for false accusations and misinformation thrown at the committee" and that the body needed to keep its options open and intended to develop a master plan that would take years.

However, Brandon Goldman, a city planning officer and former affordable housing specialist, said the Clay Street developer, Doug Irvine, wants $3.9 million for the 10-acre parcel (half would be purchased by the Parks Department) and would like to complete the deal within a year or two.

The earlier swap proposal, which would have seen Irvine trying to partition the Westwood land into four half-acre parcels and develop it, soured when a considerable crowd of Westwood neighbors and environmentalists showed up at a Parks Commission meeting to oppose it, Goldman added.

If the Parks and Recreation Department moves ahead with partitioning the land, it would have to declare it surplus property — a term that brought ire from neighbors in their testimony — and essentially become the developer, trying to win approval of the subdivision or land partition in the face of considerable opposition.

"I take offense at the term 'surplus,' " said resident Robert McLellan. "This is irreplaceable land. If we have no more money from the meals tax to purchase open space, then what are we doing selling what we have?"

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