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Decision on Normal Neighborhood Plan pushed back again

The Ashland City Council was again unable to conclude discussion of the proposed Normal Neighborhood Plan by close of its regular meeting Tuesday. While the meeting did not draw the over-capacity crowd the council’s Sept. 1 meeting did, the city had taken the precaution of setting up extra seating the lobby outside the council chambers as well as overflow seating in The Grove in case of a large turnout. Unlike the last meeting, where the NNP was largely panned, public testimony at Tuesday’s meeting was split regarding the plan.

The council did wrap up public testimony on the plan and city staff finished presenting the plan to the council, something time did not permit at the previous meeting. The council entertained a motion to approve the plan with about 30 minutes left in the meeting, however, with only moments remaining before the mandatory 10:30 p.m. close of the meeting, Councilor Pam Marsh moved to carry discussion of the motion over to the council’s next meeting on Oct. 6. The plan, which would govern future development of more than 90 acres now in Jackson County should property owners wish to be annexed by the city, has occupied most of the council’s attention for the past two sessions.

Citizen arguments against the plan Tuesday centered on zoning density and the impact additional housing development would have on the area and on the community at large. Ashland resident Sue Grossman said she felt more time was needed to review the plan.

“I think most of the city of doesn’t know that much about the plan,” Grossman said, “and I think it’s everyone’s responsibility to get more information out about the plan when it’s going to impact so many areas. I would hope we could have a longer period of time for thoughtful and reflective consideration.”

Ashland teacher Betsy Bishop, who has lived on Normal Avenue since 1988, said she would like to see the plan go forward to encourage development that would allow more Ashland youth to remain in the community to raise families of their own.

“I asked my senior class last year, ‘if you could afford to come back to Ashland and raise your family, would you do it?’ Ninety or 95 percent of them raised their hand. Then I asked them ‘how many of you think you could realistically afford that 10 years from now or 15 years from now?’ Less than half of the seniors raised their hands. Isn’t that sad? Ashland high has lost 20 percent of its students since I have worked there. (…) Is Ashland a post-children city? Maybe just one big retirement community with transplants from other places. That’s what the teenagers say.”

Tom Winmill, who has lived on Normal Avenue for 25 years, said he supported growth in the area over others because of its proximity to city infrastructure.

“It was the logical choice when we moved to that area because my daughter could walk to the grade school," Winmill said. "She could walk to the middle school. She could walk to the high school. The logical choice for development in Ashland is the Normal project area.”

Following the staff report on the NNP and public comment, the council voted 4-1 to entertain a motion to pass the Normal Neighborhood Plan with Councilor Carol Voisin dissenting. (Councilor Rich Rosenthal was not present at Tuesday’s meeting.) During discussion of the motion, Councilor Greg Lemhouse moved to amend the motion to reduce the size of a mixed-use commercial area by about half. The amendment passed; however. as the motion to approve the NNP did not come to a vote, the amendment is not final. Councilor Mike Morris said that while he didn’t think the current plan was perfect, he thought it was necessary.

“I think it actually is not the best plan we could have gotten, but it’s by far not the worst plan," Morris said. "I think after the three years everyone’s been working on this, it’s something we’ve got to deal with and put forward.”

Voisin was unsuccessful in her bid to remove language that would require a minor amendment to the NNP if developers wanted to change open space requirements in the plan. Voisin had requested that only a major amendment, which city staff has said requires a more rigorous process to approve, could adjust open space requirements.

The council will continue discussion of the plan at its Oct. 6 meeting, which begins at 7 p.m. in the City Council chamber at 1175 East Main St.

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