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Council Corner: We all have a stake in growth

Oregon land-use law that has been in place for over 40 years is one of the better models for land use in the nation. It provides for orderly growth and limits it to designated Urban Growth Boundaries (UGBs). It does not allow communities to mandate no growth but helps them to accommodate growth.

The intent was to preserve farm and forest land and prevent the sprawl so evident in other states. The other side of the land-use process is that every parcel of land has an underlying zoning designation. This allows for planning for the availability of lands for the future.

Infill or “compact urban form,” as the city comprehensive plan calls it, is an attempt to meet the goals of Oregon’s land-use laws. This concept would increase the density in the city before expanding into surrounding lands. Keeping the city’s growth inside a set urban growth boundary would also have the effect of reducing the costs of infrastructure and impacts of traffic by reducing the distances involved.

Looking at the latest 50-year projected growth data, Ashland should see around 3,200 new residents. This represents around 16 percent growth. This is a much slower rate than the last 50 years and compared to the projected Medford population increase of around 55 percent, not too difficult an amount to deal with.

Many of us have lived in other states and understand the impacts that arise from uncontrolled urban expansion and can tell you of the issues and what changes they have seen. I also see this locally. Many here complaining of growth are now living on the areas that were open spaces when I was a kid, and I can only imagine what the town looked like when my grandparents grew up here (the family came here in the early 1850s).

The question is, where are those houses to be built? If we are to preserve our resource lands, UGB expansion is not much of an option. Ashland is constrained on two sides by the watershed and the city of Talent. There are farm lands across Interstate 5 that may may have limited uses as farms and ranches, but that does not mean they are suitable for housing. Any changes to these lands require very careful study and big investments in infrastructure. The same goes for land near the lake. The answer is to make the best use of the lands inside the UGB.

When I move around town, I see a few vacant lots and most are zoned for single-family dwellings. Much of our medium-density zoning is in historic zones built to single-family densities on small lots. There will still be small cottages built on the backs of existing developed properties, but not enough to meet the demands. The few larger tracts of land that exist may be the best option, but recent experience has shown neighborhood resistance to almost any change or development. This can make the costs prohibitive for building at levels to meet the needs for the future even if those levels are below what were previously planned for. And the resulting costs of those dwellings may not be in the communities best interest. Every time we reduce the number of dwelling units, for whatever reason, we are admitting that we will need to expand the UGB at an earlier date and that we are not really concerned about affordability — a topic for another column.

The owner of each parcel of land in Ashland has some idea, within limits, of what the land can be used for. The community also has an idea of what is allowed on every parcel. In Ashland we seem to feel we get to choose what a property is used for even if its use was defined 40 years ago and is now being acted on. Yes, we all have a say in development of the town, within limits, and are responsible for our neighborhoods, but we are also responsible for the community as a whole. Changing the use of one parcel affects the entire city. Maybe the article in a Portland paper was right when it said, “We are all in favor of Oregon’s land-use laws keeping growth in cities, but only if it happens in someone else's city.”

Michael Morris is a member of the Ashland City Council.