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RCU branch gets go-ahead

Rogue Credit Union prevailed Tuesday in its request to build a new branch at 1651 Ashland St. and to begin official discussions with two nonprofits about affordable housing on the adjacent property.

The Ashland City Council unanimously reversed the Planning Commission's and staff's recommendations to deny the credit union application. Rogue Credit Union made its appeal to the council with its attorney present and a stack of 1,200 letters from residents in favor of the project.

Matt Stephenson, RCU's executive vice president and chief operating officer, told the council and audience that the current branch on Lithia Way has inadequate parking and serves 60 percent of Ashland residents’ deposits. He said the credit union’s depositors were clear they needed a new branch.

He said the plan had multiple upsides for the city, including a still-to-be-worked-out "shadow plan" to develop affordable housing on a portion of the property. City officials have said the shadow plan could not be a factor in the decision.

“We’ve been trying to work through this for years to create a win-win," Stephenson said. "We’ve been here for 50 years as a not-for-profit.”

Rogue Credit Union attorney Mark Bartholomew, of Honecker-Cowling in Medford, noted the recent approval of a Goodwill proposal to expand its drop-off and store on Tolman Creek Road also had a shadow plan that speculates as to what could be done but has not yet been completed.

“The (Rogue Credit Union) shadow plan was not looked at the same way as the Goodwill Industries shadow plan,” said Bartholomew.

The Planning Commission had ruled that the shadow plan for Rogue Credit Union was not adequate for the property and that asking for an exception to create a smaller building than half the lot size was not supported. However, Bartholomew noted, Goodwill’s shadow plan states it may build a second or third story, which he deemed as “unlikely."

“The Goodwill is under no obligation to build out a shadow plan, yet the Rogue Credit Union is,” Bartholomew told the council. City Councilor and Planning Commission liaison Greg Lemhouse is an executive with Goodwill of Jackson County. Bartholomew did not speak directly to that issue but the Goodwill approval was mentioned several times in his testimony.

Councilor Mike Morris swayed the rest of the council with his arguments that he could support Rogue Credit Union on nearly every point, including the Planning Commission’s failure to fully consider an exception for a drive-thru window and the fact that so-called shadow plans do not need to be provable but merely credible.

“The commission should have granted the exception. As to the use of a shadow plan, there’s no criteria that it has to be done, the only requirement is that it could meet the criteria,” said Morris.

“We have a responsibility to the community to do what’s good for it,” said Stephenson.

Planners had said they could not consider the possibility of affordable housing as part of the process, with Planning and Development Director Bill Molnar saying the affordable housing aspect has not been proposed officially. Stephenson, however, told the council and packed chamber that Rogue Credit Union fully intended to work with community partners to create it.

“Let me explain, we have reached out to Jackson County Housing Authority and Columbia Care Services who want to develop affordable housing,” Stephenson told the council. "We cannot do it by charter or we would do it now. But they are deeply interested and we would move forward in good faith."

After the meeting, Stephenson said that "both agencies expressed great interest" in the affordable housing plan, which would create up to 35 units.

The City Council, after roughly two hours of discussion and testimony, voted unanimously to overturn the Planning Commission ruling and grant permission to Rogue Credit Union to move forward.

“Is Ashland better with this in our community? I don’t think you could say no,” said Councilor Dennis Slattery. "I was waiting to hear the killer reason I need to uphold the Planning Commission's reason. I have respect for the commission but I did not hear that reason."

“I don’t think it (the Planning Commission ruling) is fair," Lemhouse added. "The shadow plan put forward was sufficient. It fits the code, they followed the law.”

— Email Ashland freelance writer Julie Akins at julieanneakins@gmail.com and follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/@julieakins.

Architectural rendering shows the new Rogue Credit Union branch on Ashland Street. [Submitted photo]