After years of wavering back and forth between enforcing and ignoring a 20-foot setback law, the Ashland Planning Commission will hold a study session Tuesday night to determine if the land-use ordinance should be upheld or done away with.




"Setbacks tend to be a defining element of a neighborhood," Ashland Planning Manager Bill Molnar said. "Often it's the placement of a building that creates the character of an area."




To that end, Molnar said the Tuesday night meeting will seek to answer, "What are our objectives in having the setback? How do we treat the area between a building and the sidewalk?"




The study session will be at 7 p.m. Tuesday in the council chambers, 1175 E. Main St.




Molnar explained that the 1970s local planning law requires new development be built 20 feet from the road. This law applies to Main Street, outside of the downtown, the northeast side of Lithia Way, because downtown is exempt, Siskiyou Boulevard and Ashland Street.




The ordinance has not always been enforced. Some planners and developers have argued successfully that urban planning values new development built closer to the road to create a more intimate atmosphere among buildings, roads and people. Several years ago, when new buildings were built on North Main Street, East Main Street and the new fire station on Lithia Way, the ordinance was not enforced. Molnar said he does not know why.




"Why was it an oversight, I don't know," he said. "We recognize their are inconsistencies between that standard and others that came after it."




The issue of the setbacks emerged during a pitched battle over the Northlight project in 2005.




The large-scale mixed-use development slated for Lithia Way was in the midst of a hearing process when the Ashland Planning Commission alerted the applicants that the setback would be used. Although Northlight worked around the ordinance, it put developers on notice that the 20-foot setback was back in play.




Since Northlight, Ray Kistler and the Ashland Hospital Foundation, both of whom had projects approved on North Main Street, received variances from the rule that requires new development to be built 20 feet from the road. Kistler's project was reviewed by the Ashland City Council, and the variance was granted.




Molnar said with all the recent activity about the setback the planning commission felt it was time to take it on, saying, "A majority on the planning commission felt it might be time to take a look at it."




He added that the setback could be kept for certain areas but not others. While city planners have said it should not be used for projects that relate to the downtown, there may be use for it with projects on roads that don't have bike paths or other pedestrian amenities.




Earlier this year, Ashland Community Development Director David Stalheim said the setback, as it relates to downtown, will likely be changed when the land-use code is amended.




"In the downtown area, it doesn't make sense from an urban design standpoint," he said. "To me it would look like suburbia."




Stalheim is not as sure about North Main Street. "Downtown is an easier question to answer than North Main Street," he said. Because North Main Street could require a bike lane at some point in the future, he was not sure that the setback should be scrapped there.




"I don't know the answer to North Main Street," he said. "There might not be a very prescriptive path to follow there."




Molnar added that transportation facilities for bicycles and pedestrians, the use of the area and neighborhood character will be factored when considering the future of the setback.




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