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Normal neighborhood plan draws big crowd, but no decision

The fate of a proposal years in the making to update the plan that would guide development on about 94 acres just outside city limits but within Ashland's urban growth boundary won't be determined for at least another two weeks.

The Ashland City Council took nearly three hours of public comment on the draft Normal Neighborhood Plan at Tuesday’s regular meeting, much of it in opposition to the plan. So many people turned out to speak that the meeting was briefly postponed while about 30 people moved out of the Council Chambers and into the lobby at the behest of Ashland Fire Marshal Margueritte Hickman for safety reasons.

About 30 people spoke. Another 20 or so who had submitted request to speak forms left before their names were called. In an attempt to make time for all comments to be heard, Stromberg reordered the usual procedure, taking public comment first instead of hearing the staff report. Even so, by the time public comment was done, only a few minutes remained before the meeting's mandatory closing time of 10:30 p.m., and the issue was automatically continued to the council's next regular meeting on Sept. 15. At that time, those who submitted slips but did not speak will be allowed to do so.

Central to the opposition was the zoning density of about six and a half units per acre recommended in the plan which, if approved, would apply to any annexation proposals submitted to the city, instead of the current decades-old policy. Bryce Anderson, who spoke on behalf of four homeowners associations in the area that would be governed by the proposed plan, said he was concerned about the prospect of apartments being developed in the area. He says when he spoke with the Normal Neighborhood working group last year he thought there was an understanding that the area would be developed as single-family residences.

“The entire plan for this area should be focused on single-family residences," he said. "Cluster developments, OK. Cottage residences, but not multifamily residences.”

Anderson said when he read the updated plan closely he was surprised by the allowable density in the zoning.

“The ordinance ... allows multifamily dwellings, apartment houses .... Now, you might say that’s OK, the density is only about seven units per acre. But with density bonuses … you could end up with an increase in density of about 60 percent, or about 11 units per acre. So what you told us you weren’t going to do through the front door, you went and did through the back door.”

Anderson also took issue with mixed use development adjacent to his property. He said he was skeptical of the city’s assertion that the commercial businesses allowed in the area would simply serve the needs of residents in the immediate area.

“For all I know, you could have a pot shop there next to the Mormon church,” Anderson said.

Protection of wetlands on the property, which is owned by a number of different people, was also a top concern of those who spoke. Pastor Jim Curty, representing GracePoint Church, said the calculation of wetlands area on GracePoint’s property was grossly overestimated.

“The initial estimates of where wetlands were, and their sizes, was based on the registered wetland estimate," he said, "but buried in the documentation is the fact that during this estimate, there was not an on-site visit to view or study even the largest wetland, which is on our property.”

Traffic congestion was another top concern of those who spoke in opposition. Concerns about the number of vehicle trips in the area, connections to existing traffic arteries, and increased traffic near Ashland Middle School and Walker Elementary School were all cited. Carola Lacey said the number of vehicles would impact safety.

“The high density of 450 residential units proposed in the plan will result in congestion in our streets," Lacey said, "and will result in up to 5,000 additional vehicle trips per day. This is according to the City Transportation Commission. Much of this increased traffic will be near area schools, and will create a serious safety issue.” She encouraged the city to reduce the density of the plan and to improve roads and railroad crossings before any development.

Another priority for those at the meeting was determining what the city’s financial liability would be for improvements to infrastructure. While developers must finance utility and road infrastructure on their own land, it is less clear what the exact financial repercussions would be with regard to running municipal utilities and transportation infrastructure to these properties. The city has stated that developers will foot much of the bill, but that if the infrastructure is deemed to serve the whole community, the city would pay a portion of that development. Funds for city contribution would come from fees assessed to developers rather than from the tax base, however many took issue with the concept of advance funding, where the city would put up initial funding for improvements and receive payments from developers to recoup costs later.

Howard Miller questioned the concept, saying the city could be left on the hook for developers who don’t pay their part. “For advanced funding, if I understand this right” Miller said, “those parts that aren’t resolved in 20 years, those parts become the responsibility of the city. And that money comes out of the tax base.”

Others took issue with the fact that property in the plan, which is all currently in the county in a pocket south of East Main Street surrounded on three sides by city land, would have to be annexed into the city for development. Several speakers questioned why the city would support annexation of lands in the urban growth boundary when an estimated 1,800 housing units could be built on land already within the city limits.

Not everyone at Tuesday’s meeting opposed the plan, however. Cathy Shaw said she felt the plan was a good step toward responsible urban planning. Shaw stressed that the plan is not a development proposal.

“It’s a plan for how this area will develop if somebody wants to develop it," Shaw said. "This is proactive. It’s what we want to do. This area is in walking distance of elementary schools. It’s within walking distance of the middle school and the high school.”

Shaw, who was elected mayor of Ashland three times, said the area was right for the type of zoning proposed. “When I was mayor," she said, "we moved the urban growth boundary inside the city limits above the boulevard because we knew that public transportation, as well as fire services and emergency services could not access people who lived way up on the hill. That meant we were pushing development to the flatlands.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by former Planning Commissioner Brent Thompson. Thompson says he initially favored developments that prioritized single family homes, but after years on the planning commission, he saw sprawl as a concern, and began favoring higher density developments closer to urban areas. He said this plan would create that kind of development and help retain Ashland’s character.

“I began favoring infill because the lower density developments consumed too much land and would start to move into the farm and grazing land surrounding Ashland," Thompson said. "Unless the U.S. stops growing, then we’re going to have to accommodate growth. And this is a more centrally located parcel than over across the freeway.”

Two other speakers voiced their hopes that the city would move forward with the plan as a means of providing more affordable housing units. Abraham Wylie Bettinger said he seen an exodus of young families.

“I’d really like to see a place for the working class so they don’t have to commute into Ashland for jobs, and that’s what happening," Wylie said. "And that also creates its own kind of traffic issue. The working and service jobs in Ashland, they have to come in. That’s happening across the nation, and I think it’s kind of indicative of a resistance to making room for all people in our country.”

Others echoed the sentiment, saying affordable housing and diversity would be supported by the plan.

Alec Dickinson an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at AlecAlaska@gmail.com.