“The city of Ashland has not updated the housing element of its comprehensive plan since 1989," city of Ashland Senior Planner Brandon Goldman told residents who came to participate in shaping a new plan Wednesday night at the Ashland Senior Center. "A lot has changed since then.”

A small group of roughly 50 citizens, most of whom serve on a city commission or work in the industry, showed up to begin charting the future of housing in Ashland. Goldman explained that the comprehensive plan has big sway with elected officials who create policy. “Policies are statements of enacting the plan," he said. "This has a big impact on the city.”

With that opening statement, people broke into work groups and tackled issues of zoning, environmental protection, mixed use housing and affordability. Residents discussed the issues in groups and facilitators took down the comments to include as the plan begins to take shape.

Affordability and diversity came up in most discussions throughout the evening. “The purpose of old thinking was to keep values up by things looking alike," said Rich Rohde, a member of the city's Housing and Human Services Commission. "But now we need diverse types of housing.”

Many in the groups suggested relying on a market economy model to dictate supply, saying demand and pricing is not working. “It seems to me market forces will continue to push prices up," Noel Chatroux told the group, expressing concern about people moving out of Ashland for lack of available housing. "I think we’re up against something we’re going to have to interfere with.”

“One way to increase the inventory is to allow 25-foot lots for building," Ashland Community Resource Center Director Leigh Madsen suggested. "What about building five 500-square-foot houses?” Goldman offered that the Planning Commission is working on a policy allowing for clustered small homes on a single lot.

A lack of affordable housing and a vacancy rate of less than 2 percent gave urgency to the discussion. Goldman told the group that Ashland’s aging population, smaller households and the average price of housing continuing to rise would be factors in looking at the plan.

“We’ve said we want a whole community, but we haven’t done anything to make it happen," said developer Mark DiRienzo. "The regulations make it difficult. We need to allow flexibility on some things.”

“I’ve lived in Ashland for 30 years," said Phil Miller, who lost his home to fire and still hasn’t recovered. "It used to be a nice town to live in, now it’s a great place to be a tourist.

Haywood Norton, who sits on the city Planning Commission, told the group homes in Ashland are too expensive for local people. “I spoke to a Realtor who had never sold a house to a graduate of Ashland High School,” he said.

The cause, according to Goldman, is the type of work in Ashland as compared to the cost of housing which, he said, prices local employees out of living in town. “The wage scale as compared to the cost of housing is the disparity,” Goldman said.

He also pointed out that Oregon law does not allow communities to regulate for affordable housing. The group suggested as possible solutions: allowing smaller building lots, greater flexibility in zoning and regulation, allowing clusters of small homes, loosening restrictions on Accessory Residential Units ("granny houses") so they can be used as affordable rentals, and developing housing inside the urban growth boundary.

Ashland resident Mark Haneberg said that the city could apply to Jackson County for a pilot project to develop housing on the more than 800 acres the city owns which is referred to as the Imperatrice Ranch Property. It sits north of town east of Interstate 5.

The city bought the property in 1996 for $950,287 and planned to spray treated sewage effluent on its hillsides in response to a state ruling that Ashland’s effluent contained too much phosphorus and was harming fish since it drained into a creek. The city changed its mind about the spraying and instead upgraded its sewage treatment plant.

Since that time the property has largely been unused. “The city should decide if it wants to be a complete community," Haneberg said after making his suggestion. "If we want to be a whole community we need all kinds of housing. If we want to be an exclusive retirement community then we’re on the way. We need to say what we want.”

The community meeting is part of a process to begin rewriting the housing element of the city’s comprehensive plan. The Planning Department expects to document the comments from the meeting to take forward. For those who did not attend the meeting, the city has a link on its website to complete a questionnaire. Go to www.ashland.or.us/housingelementupdate.

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