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Compromise spares Clay Street cottonwood

Neighbor Judith McMillan ties a yellow ribbon around a black cottonwood on Clay Street that was slated to be cut down until residents persuaded the Ashland Tree Commission to recommend it as a Heritage Tree.Mail Tribune / Bob Pennell
City will shave off lot tree's on, sell rest of lot for affordable housing, tree lot to private developer

The city of Ashland has decided to work around a large cottonwood tree it once sought to remove to make way for affordable housing by selling the land it's on and adding other land to property on Clay Street at Villard Street it will then sell to the Housing Authority of Jackson County.

The City Council voted a year ago to seek a tree removal permit to cut down the tree and sell a 40,000-square-foot parcel to HAJC so it could build as many as 20 affordable housing units. HAJC stipulated the tree removal permit had to be issued before it would buy the parcel. But the plans were hampered when 1,000 citizens signed petitions and showed up advocating for the tree to the Tree and Planning commissions, which both voted (6-0 and 3-2, respectively) in June 2015 to deny the tree removal permit.

“I’m feeling like it’s time to thank the people who made this happen,” says former Tree Commissioner and current cottonwood tree crusader, Bryan Holley, about the compromise move.

The Fremont cottonwood, which is about 75 feet tall with a trunk about 6 feet in diameter at breast height supporting limbs stretching out 40 to 50 feet, was named city Tree of the Year for 2013. An interpretation of a core sample that went part-way into the tree trunk puts its age at 75 years. Other estimates, based on the tree’s size, range up to in excess of 200 years. The tree is not native to this area and, according to the city’s application, has a typical lifespan of 75 to 100 years, with a maximum of 130 years, according to some sources, and 200 to 400 years, according to others.

At the end of the year-long conflict, the city decided to subdivide the area so that fewer affordable housing units could be built and the tree would be spared. The lot will be 33,000 square feet instead of 40,000, and HAJC would build 15-17 affordable housing units instead of up to 20.

“We have a 1 percent vacancy rate. People need affordable housing. It’s as good as we could get,” said Councilor Pam Marsh.

Councilor Carol Voison agreed, saying “We will always need affordable housing, but we don’t need to cut down trees and pave over every bit of green space to get it.”

The city will sell the land with the tree in an open process. As to concerns about the new owner wanting to cut the tree down, Marsh said, “The tree Commission and Planning Commission wouldn’t allow the tree to be cut down. Whoever buys the property will know the history of the property and the tree.”

Some Clay Street residents who didn’t want to give their names for fear of being misunderstood say they are concerned about the continuing development in the neighborhood in terms of density and sheer numbers of cars and drivers.

“There’s not even a shoulder," one said. "It’s a crazy driving scenario already.” Fifteen to 17 more units will only add to the numbers on Clay Street which residents describe as a major shortcut for people wanting to go from East Main to downtown.

These same residents also said, “Privacy is an issue. Noise is an issue due to the high density. We could really use the area as a small park for all the residents.”

Councilor Marsh said she could not recall any comments about the area being too crowded or being over-represented with affordable housing.

“If you look at a map of the city," Marsh said, "there are affordable housing units all over. It’s a great place for people. It’s near stores and transportation.”

For those like Holley who wanted to see the cottonwood tree saved, the decision was a victory. “ A Tree City would find a way to save the tree and build affordable housing," he said. "Ashlanders love our trees. We’ve been stressing from the beginning a compromise that would allow both.”

What happens next with the cottonwood tree depends to some degree on its own long-term health and who buys the property. “This really isn’t a tree the city of Ashland should be charged with,” according to Marsh, who suggests area residents may be the best placed to care for the tree.

“Americans should be good at win/win outcomes. We’re looking for this all over the country,” said Holley.

Email Ashland freelance writer Julie Akins at akinsj@sou.edu and follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/@julieakins