Ashland's planning process has become so complex, so burdened with contradictory ordinances and so open to citizen challenges that builders say they don't know what to expect — and even are avoiding building here.

Ashland's planning process has become so complex, so burdened with contradictory ordinances and so open to citizen challenges that builders say they don't know what to expect — and even are avoiding building here.

In response, the Ashland City Council on June 30 set a goal to "increase the clarity, responsiveness and certainty of the development process" — although the path to that goal is unclear.

What the goal could mean, say builders and officials, is an exhaustive rewrite of the land-use code and a possible revamp of the process so average citizens are less able to derail projects with frivolous challenges — and possibly making a hearings officer, not the Planning Commission, the first step in the appeals process.

When it was set up in the 1970s, after passage of state land-use planning laws, Ashland's planning process was ideal, says Ashland architect Ray Kistler. But "now I have clients who won't do anything here ... my clients constantly walk away if a project has to go before the Planning Commission."

Kistler, who has been involved in many downtown projects, says, "The system is broken," mainly because it's so easy for citizens to challenge a project, sending it on a costly and lengthy voyage that can go to the City Council, Land Use Board of Appeals, State Court of Appeals and the State Supreme Court.

Challenges become possible when a project gets approval for variances from the city Community Development Department. Builders and planners seek variances from the rules because they make a project better for the builder and the neighbors, says Kistler, but a small group of citizens regularly challenges applications, forcing builders to stick to a "cookie-cutter approach," doing it by the book and limiting innovation.

"Tens of thousands of dollars are spent by applicants and tens of thousands by taxpayers," says Kistler. Still, he adds, the democratic nature of the process is positive, even if it easily can be abused.

Contrasting that view, City Councilman Eric Navickas says the council is "doing outreach to building professionals to promote a higher ethic on the part of the development community to work with the city within the parameters we put forward. We've seen a lot of developers push the limits of ordinances and their projects were shut down. Every limit has been pushed and every loophole found."

The city, says Navickas, needs an educational process so developers better understand how to conform to regulations, instead of "wasting a lot of time and money ... trying to make regulations conform to their project."

Contractor Ed Bemis says the development process became more uncertain for developers when one of his projects went before the state Supreme Court, which ruled the City Council was free to "move the goalposts ... reinterpret the rules and apply new rules."

"In terms of the economic climate," Bemis says, "it costs a fortune to get anything through ... and on a whim anyone can decide they don't like it. It stagnates the economy. No one can do anything."

Mayor John Stromberg lauds recent reforms that let planning staffers make more routine decisions, freeing the City Council to deliberate only on issues contested before the Planning Commission — and not on the entire project.

However, Stromberg says, any variances "can add uncertainty and that's very threatening. You don't know how long it will take and how much more you have to invest. You fear not doing it by the numbers and that stifles creativity and originality."

The town's land-use code is a large reason Ashland is attractive, functional and lacks sprawl, Stromberg notes, but over the decades it and other codes and ordinances have taken on layers of new rules — and what's permitted by one ordinance may be interpreted as violating another.

"This is a town with strong values around wise land use, good urban design, livable neighborhoods, a sound environment, fire safety and others — and they need to be put together. It's so complex and unwieldy for users and the people who provide services to the community," says Stromberg.

"You try to coordinate with three different organizations and it's time-consuming and expensive, so it's a problem to the economy, in jobs and business," says Stromberg. "We can't be doing that. Do we find the bottleneck? How do we loosen it up without abandoning our values? How long can we keep adding to ordinances? It (the council goal) means we're looking for new mechanisms so it's more responsive and easier to understand."

Planning Commissioner David Dotterrer says the planning code needs to be "clear and straightforward" so applicants, when they walk through an application with city staff, "should have a 95 to 97 percent certainty they'll get approval."

Dotterrer faults the Planning Commission for exercising its freedom to "take a different read" than city staff. "I've heard from developers outside this town that they're not going to Ashland because it's such an uncertain process," Dotterrer says. "One, who wanted to build apartments, said he wasn't coming here, but would go to Medford or Central Point, where, if you follow the code, you're 99 percent sure to get approval."

The land-use code, says Stromberg, is "growing exponentially ... and that puts a lot of pressure on the staff. The community wants a lot protected and a lot of people want to build ... and it all collides at the (planning) counter."

Planning consultant Mark Knox, a former city planning staffer, says city planning staff is "stretched very thin" because of budget cuts, and "there's an enormous amount of regulation in the code now that forces them to be overworked."

Uncertainty and expense are added to the planning process because the city won't set a deadline, within three weeks, for its decisions, says Knox. The process takes about two months, he says.

The recession has cut the workload and caused layoffs of planning staff, but Community Development Director Bill Molnar says he doesn't believe his staff is overworked.

Molnar says surveys show people always think the planning process is too complex and lengthy. There's always a demand for more flexibility and more certainty in the process, and "there's an inherent contradiction in that," he says.

In search of more certainty and speed in the process, many, including developer John Fields, suggest hiring a hearings officer as the first layer of appeals from the planning department — and leaving planning commissioners to handle appeals from that officer.

"No lay group of people (on the Planning Commission) can get up to speed. They're always rewriting the ordinances — with unintended consequences that people don't understand," says Fields.

"The process has gotten so complex. Typically, it's a confusion that exhausts planners and staff. It's a balancing act between conflicting regulations ... . We should eliminate the Planning Commission. It should rewrite the ordinances. Let the hearings officer be the decider," says Fields.

Knox leans toward the hearings officer idea. "We have a very litigious constituency. Every application has to be very thorough. Appeals from the hearings officer should have to be significant so that it makes an appellant think twice."

The hearings officer would be an experienced land-use attorney, Knox says. The downside would be it would cost the city more money and would be "more black and white," with less discussion and exploration of the community's philosophy.

The council's values, visions and goals are posted at http://sotc.ashland.or.us/, where citizens may add feedback.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.