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Guest Opinion: The genesis of Normal

Editor's Note: this week's Council Corner column will appear Wednesday.

Oregon’s motto, Things Look Different Here, references Oregon’s land-use laws established by Senate Bill 100, signed into law in 1973. SB 100 created an institutional structure for statewide planning and required every Oregon city and county to prepare a comprehensive plan in accordance with a set of general state goals. Comprehensive plans direct where and how both urban and rural land will develop.

Generally speaking, SB 100 says rural areas will be left alone and cities will accept growth unless they lack specific resources such as road, water or sewer capacity. If development is stopped for any of these reasons a moratorium can be enacted and the city or county is given 120 days to develop a plan to fix the problem.

The upside of SB 100 is that it held our cities and farms. Wherever SB 100 was seriously applied, it kept communities and worlds small, connected and intimate, and protected agriculture from suburbanization. Few cities applied SB 100 more assiduously than Ashland.

By limiting development to cities, leaving rural lands rural, we form relationships with our neighbors. When we allow sprawl, we disengage from community and commit ourselves to cars. It’s as simple as that. Without SB 100, development would encroach on our city perimeter and be authorized by the county.

The downside of SB 100 is that it dictates we must accept development. That development can be piecemeal or evolve from an agreed-upon area plan.

In the years prior to my taking office and through my three terms as mayor, Ashland took measured steps to answer the questions: Where do we accommodate growth and where should it be discouraged?

We decided we did not want to creep farther up the hillside; ultimately it’s dangerous and difficult to defend homes against fire in the forest interface. Further, areas could not be readily accessed by school buses or emergency vehicles. To prevent creep, the urban growth boundary was moved inside the city limits in the steep woodland areas. We also purchased or traded for fire-prone land and included it in the Open Space Plan.

We did not want expansive growth on the other side of Interstate 5: Neighborhoods cut off from communities by man-made structures (in this case I-5), disengage. So development out Eagle Mill and East Main beyond the freeway was discouraged. Land already in the city limits was fair game.

We wanted no development in the flood plains: Areas periodically inundated by water should not hold houses. Further, flood plains should be protected for agricultural opportunities. We accomplished this with the flood plain ordinance.

We also wanted to protect wetlands from development. After the federal government eased restrictions on wetlands, Ashland drafted land-use laws to protect them by allowing increased density in one area in exchange for leaving wetlands undisturbed in another.

We also decided to limit high-density residential (R-3) and encouraged mixed use in commercial zones. That means living above and commercial below. Doing so keeps our taxes lower because there is always a human presence.

To minimize fights, the open space plan was proposed to and sanctioned by the voters. It established green space within walking distance of every home and trails connecting neighborhoods.

So, given all that, where do we direct growth?

Ideally, we wanted (and should still want) to encourage development where it’s accessible by emergency vehicles and public transportation, is close to schools and has bike and pedestrian access. Think Mill Pond or Mountain Meadows. Heck, think of the Railroad District.

Although it is difficult to watch vacant land gobbled up for housing, the Normal Street area plan proposes future housing close to schools, the bike path and established infrastructure; it protects wetlands and is accessible by emergency vehicles and buses; and it establishes a blueprint for how this area should develop — if or when it does. It doesn’t mean it will.

Planning for growth is good for a community, and the underlying tenets of this plan, while not perfect, reflect a culmination of land-use decisions made by city leaders over the past 40 years.

Catherine Shaw is a democratic political strategist, author of "The Campaign Manager, Running and Winning Local Elections," and former three-term mayor of Ashland.