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Phoenix looks at adding residential option for rebuild

A proposed change to allow creation of high-density residential structures in the Highway-Commercial Zone along and adjoining Highway 99 will get a second look by Phoenix City Council, which is considering ways to encourage building to replace housing lost in the Almeda fire.

A first reading of a land development code amendment that would allow the change was passed by the council Dec. 7. But it didn’t opt to do it on an emergency basis, as suggested by staff, after members of the public and the town’s Planning Commission were critical of the proposal.

Council will meet again Monday, Dec. 21, to consider a second reading of the amendments, which would carry an emergency classification to allow immediate implementation. Council will consider both the approved version and an alternative developed by Community Development Director Joe Slaughter that incorporates possible changes.

City Council and the Planning Commission held a joint Dec. 14 study session to go over concerns.

Both land owners and developers, some from out of state, have approached the city to find out how they might work to alleviate the housing shortage, said Slaughter. One suggestion was allowing higher density R-3 residential construction on 31 acres of Highway-Commercial proposed in the downtown core area, including Main Street.

Phoenix lost an estimated 111 houses, 284 manufactured homes and 150 multifamily units in the Almeda fire. At the Dec. 7 session Mayor Chris Luz said many homeowners and manufactured home park owners are planning to rebuild. He said the need to change zoning in the downtown to allow for residences is urgent, but did not require emergency status.

Revisions would only apply to land zoned Commercial-Highway west of Interstate 5 and would not apply on 39 acres of similarly zoned land around the Exit 24 interchange east of the freeway. Slaughter said residential development in the proposed area would not lead to a shortage of commercial land, as studies show there is an excess supply.

Future commercial development in the area would not be restrained, and housing developers might sign agreements to prevent actions against commercial activities.

Housing Authority of Jackson County has been among developers inquiring about land for high-density development. At present the city has only 1.5 acres available for such projects, Slaughter said.

Provisions that are unique to the amendment include:

? The first 100 feet next to the highway would have extra criteria to ensure that commercial activity is accommodated.

? Height of buildings would be limited to 50 feet.

? Fences or buffers are proposed in the alternative version as a way to better delineate residential from commercial properties.

The Planning Commission considered the amendment at its Oct. 26 meeting. Prior to the session correspondence was received raising concerns about the change. Commissioners voted to schedule a study session.

Considering the urgency of the situation, city staff decided to bring the issue directly to the council rather than wait for the commission to hold a session and public hearing before voting on a recommendation.

“This isn’t taking anything away form the existing zoning in the commercial aspect,” said City Manager Eric Swanson, who told the council that Slaughter was not acting alone and that he backed the proposed changes. “I’d call it another tool in the tool box.”

“A number of changes were made based on input from the public at the Planning Commission and since the (council meeting) notice was sent out,” said Slaughter. “This item has been shaped by public participation. It hasn’t been done in a vacuum.”

“My concern is about the citizens and the Planning Commission and having them cut out of the process,” Councilor Robert Crawford said at the Dec. 7 meeting. “Could we have a work study session to clarify everything that we have heard from citizens? I don’t think anyone is going to say stop and we can’t move ahead.”

Several speakers in the public hearing urged adoption at the meeting in order to bring back residents displaced by the fire. Others called for revisions to protect commercial employment in the area and raised concerns about traffic impacts.

“All we can do is try to bring things forward that haven’t been thought about and pass them on to the City Council,” said Micki Summerhays, chair of the Planning Commission, when she opened the Dec. 14 study session.

Planning Commissioner Krista Peterson, who was elected to the council in November and will take a seat on it in January, voiced concerns that more work was needed, including looking at traffic and water issues.

“I think some of this is good. I just don’t think all of it’s good. We haven’t been able to try to figure out how this is going to be impacting everyone,” said Peterson. “What is the big rush? Will the developers drop us if this isn’t approved before 2021? No. It’s our job to make sure we do it right.”

Monday’s 6:30 p.m. City Council session will be done via Zoom due to the pandemic. An agenda with information on access is available on the city’s website, www.phoenixoregon.gov. Another public hearing would not be held unless the council decides to add one, said Slaughter.

Reach Ashland freelance writer Tony Boom at tboomwriter@gmail.com.

An Environmental Protection Agency contractor spray paints material that might contain asbestos while cleaning up hazardous debris left over by the Almeda fire in Phoenix. (Photo courtesy EPA)