The Ashland City Council has waived $35,000 in city planning and engineering fees for neighbors whose homes were destroyed by the 2010 Oak Knoll fire.
Mayor John Stromberg cast the tie-breaking vote Tuesday to approve the fee waivers, joining Councilors Carol Voisin, Dennis Slattery and Greg Lemhouse.
"These people have been through hell and back," Voisin said, adding that city officials need to show compassion.
Many of the neighbors have said their insurance companies have not given them enough money to cover the full costs of rebuilding their homes, let alone pay the city fees.
"Everyone thinks the insurance company is going to pay for all of this," said Oak Knoll neighbor Dan Thomas. "But they are paying to replace a house that was built in 1976, not to rebuild in 2011."
So far, nine of the 11 homes destroyed by the fire in August 2010 are being rebuilt.
Councilors Mike Morris, Russ Silbiger and David Chapman voted against waiving the planning and engineering fees for home reconstruction.
"This is a hit to the budget," Silbiger said.
Morris and Chapman said the Ashland Community Development Department should be reimbursed for the work it has done. They also worried about setting a precedent for future homes that have to be rebuilt after being destroyed by a fire or other disaster.
Chapman noted the city already waived system development charges for Oak Knoll neighbors since they are replacing homes, not adding new ones.
SDCs are generally charged for new development that puts added strain on city infrastructure. They would have amounted to about $7,500 per home, city officials previously estimated.
Council members unanimously voted to waive a $1,878 application fee for the neighbors to build an 8-foot-tall concrete wall to separate the backyards of their homes from nearby Interstate 5.
Community Development Director Bill Molnar recommended the council not waive the planning and engineering fees for home rebuilding, but he supported the wall fee waiver. Molnar said the neighbors saved his department time by teaming up to present the wall proposal.
The Oak Knoll fire started on the west side of I-5, jumped the freeway, then destroyed 11 homes on Oak Knoll Drive and damaged three others nearby. No one was injured.
Many of the neighbors had flammable wood fences.
Neighbors have acknowledged the concrete wall will not protect them from blazes like the Oak Knoll fire, which shot flames and sparks high into the air.
But they said it will be better than wooden fences, could stop small grass fires, will reduce trespassing and will help buffer I-5 noise.
Neighbors have said the waiver of planning and engineering fees will help them afford the wall, which could cost about $80,000.
A judge ruled in December 2010 that John David Thiry, a homeless man believed to be mentally ill, likely started the Oak Knoll fire, but that he didn't understand the danger of his actions.
He was set free after spending time in jail awaiting trial.
Staff writer Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-479-8199 or firstname.lastname@example.org.