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Ashland willing to sacrifice safety to appease developers

Is public safety “tinsel on a tree”?

With little discussion, despite a hearings record of over 1,000 pages, the Ashland City Council unanimously approved the “Grand Terrace” annexation in December last year. As envisioned by the developer, the annexation would have resulted in the construction of 196 apartments on a 17-acre hillside north of the city limits along a 45-mph stretch of Highway 99 lined with commercial businesses.

Rogue Advocates, the organization I’ve been involved with for over a decade, appealed this project because Ashland was ignoring its own minimum street safety standards. Basic public safety should not be negotiable when developers come courting.

Last month, Oregon’s Land Use Board of Appeals (LUBA) agreed with us and issued a decision to reverse the city’s illegal decision.

During a recent Ashland Planning Commission meeting, these concerns were not only ignored but ridiculed by members of the commission. Commissioners didn’t dispute the legal objections from LUBA, nor did they have a frank conversation about their failure to uphold Ashland’s laws. Rather, planning commissioners speculated on Rogue Advocates’ motivation for appealing. The commission indicated that changes to Ashland’s annexation laws might be necessary to get legal approval.

In other words: If you can’t get away with something illegal, change the law.

Recently appointed Commissioner Roger Pearce also likened Ashland’s annexation requirements for safe and accessible bicycle and pedestrian facilities to “tinsel on a tree,” with the apparent belief that such requirements are gratuitous fluff. This, after officials from the Oregon Department of Transportation cited high speeds and poor visibility as reasons why a safe pedestrian crossing couldn’t be provided in the vicinity of the annexed area.

Similarly, the city’s Transportation Commission identified the need for a signalized crossing of Highway 99 to allow bicyclists and pedestrians to safely access the annexed area. The recommendation was ignored. This type of leadership will leave the community with hazardous streets and reduced livability.

Some will try to frame this as solely an affordable housing issue. However, this is not the only important issue here. Rogue Advocates recognizes the profound need for affordable housing in the Rogue Valley and unequivocally supports laws, such as Ashland’s, that require a percentage of affordable units as a condition of annexation. In this case, 30 of the 196 proposed apartments would have been “affordable” — but only because Ashland’s annexation code requires it. In fact, at the outset of the hearings process, Ashland’s code required the developer to provide a higher percentage of affordable units. But, partly due to his protestations, Ashland amended its annexation laws immediately prior to approving the annexation, thus reducing the number of required affordable units. Do not be fooled: this is not a philanthropic project deserving such concessions.

But with the housing crisis on everyone’s mind. the fundamental issue continues to be ignored: the unsustainable impacts of endless outward growth.

Ashland sits on the horns of a growth dilemma: how to have affordable housing in a market that is tilted toward high-priced housing. The city is facing the inevitable law of diminishing returns inherent in all forms of ever-expanding growth. As a city grows, it uses up its supply of easily developed land and runs into more logistical and economic constraints on further expansion.

High-density housing is best sited as infill or redevelopment near the city center, not out on the fringe. Such a location avoids high-speed road safety issues and supports alternative transportation options to services. An often-overlooked component of affordable housing is how well its location frees people from auto dependence. Cars take a big bite out of modest personal budgets.

Ashland unfortunately appears to be following a pattern of rushing to get more housing by sacrificing public resources and safety to appease developers. This will not solve the housing crisis. It will make it worse in the end. To create a more sustainable and equitable community, residents need a deeper level of understanding of the opportunities and constraints when deciding how — and if — it grows.

Engage with your local government and let your voice be heard. Attend public meetings (it’s now easier than ever on Zoom), comment on proposals, and ask your elected representatives the hard questions. They are elected to serve you.

Every project demands this question be answered: have we considered every possible option to grow in and up before we make another irreversible decision to take another step to grow out?

Jimmy MacLeod is president of Rogue Advocates (www.rogueadvocates.org), a public-interest land-use watchdog group and an affiliate of 1000 Friends of Oregon.