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Council Corner: Normal Plan beats the alternative

After three long years of study and 50 public meetings, the Normal Neighborhood Plan is finally in front of the Ashland City Council. If approved in October, the plan will guide the form and location of development in the 94-acre area — bounded by Clay Street on the east, East Main on the north, the railroad tracks on the south and middle school property on the west — for decades to come.

Immersed in details, it can be easy to lose track of the big picture. So let’s take a step back and ask: Why did we take on this enormous project in the first place, and what is it that we’re trying to create?

To begin, it is critical to understand that we have no ability to preserve the Normal area in its current state. Outside of city limits but within our urban growth boundary, the site is currently subject to Jackson County planning rules. If the neighborhood isn’t built out under a master plan and annexed to the City of Ashland, it will likely be developed under county land use regulations that allow one home per parcel. That could result in a total of 33 large homes and four religious organizations on 94 acres, each parcel with its own well and septic system.

Without the Normal area as a focus for growth, sooner or later the city would be forced to add other acreage to our urban growth boundary. The result would be to expand our footprint to lands now in agricultural or open space uses and to exacerbate sprawl.

In short, in a day and age when we need to use land and resources efficiently, development under county standards would be a tremendous lost opportunity and an environmental debacle.

In contrast, the city master plan envisions what I believe could become one of Ashland’s great neighborhoods. Emphasizing compact urban development, the plan provides for a variety of housing types on a street and trails system consistent with adjacent neighborhoods. Most of the now-vacant acreage would be zoned N-1-3.5, a density that allows small homes, clustered cottages, townhouses or compact attached units. A smaller area next to the railroad tracks would allow apartments or condominiums.

With modest sized homes and lots, this area could provide significant workforce or retirement housing. This could be a neighborhood where young families (even our own grown kids) could settle. And because our annexation ordinance requires that approximately 25 percent of all housing annexed be affordable, this is a place that promises significant income diversity — a goal rarely achieved in Ashland.

The wide vistas on the Normal site allow homes to be integrated with and around streams, floodplains and riparian areas. Wetlands would be protected to city standards, which are more rigorous than county requirements. The master plan emphasizes protection of scenic views and the open space corridors that provide wildlife habitat.

Already surrounded by city limits on three sides, Normal represents the best of infill housing. This is a neighborhood where children could walk to elementary or middle school, retirees could walk to the senior center and everyone could walk to the bus line and the Dollar store.

It is important to note that this is a very long-term master plan. Much of the land within the designated area is already occupied. It is likely that these uses will remain for many years. The master plan simply defines the kind and location of development that could occur in 10, 20 or even 50 years, should owners decided to move forward.

The now-vacant lands that are most likely to be developed in the coming years could support 300 homes — about 3-4 years worth of growth for the city, assuming our current very low 0.75 percent growth rate. In short, Normal would absorb predicted growth, not accelerate the rate at which we grow.

As 50 meetings attest, we take public process seriously in Ashland. Over time the Normal area could become one of Ashland’s most beloved neighborhoods. We must make the most we can of this opportunity to plan for the next generation.

Pam Marsh is a member of the Ashland City Council.