There will be bigger, leafier trees on the Ashland Plaza and no more smoking in the Pioneer Street parking lot after votes by the Ashland City Council at its regular business meeting Tuesday.

The City Council voted to approve a contract which allows a private contractor and citizens group to put the bigger trees, 30 feet tall, on the Plaza, replacing five smaller trees currently there, at no cost to the city, other than minimal staff time.

“I think this will resolve the Plaza issue for people and offer a healing for the community," said Councilor Stefani Seffinger. Removal and replacement of trees on the Plaza on the recommendation of arborists and addition of more hard surfaces during a Plaza enhancement project in 2013 drew numerous complaints. "It’s also a heat island and these trees will help with that.”

Councilor Dennis Slattery agreed, saying the grass-roots effort needed acknowledgement. “This is a good effort on the part of the community," Slattery said. "They did everything right and we should go ahead.”

The council voted unanimously to allow the tree planting which will begin shortly. The trees currently in the Plaza will be donated for replanting in Ashland parks.

The council also voted to approve on the first of two readings to extend the non-smoking, non-loitering and exclusion zones in downtown to the public parking lot on Pioneer Street at Lithia Way. Business owners complained to the council that large groups of people have been hanging out in the city parking lot impeding people who wish to park and don’t want to pass through groups of people smoking.

The counci, in response to complaints from business owners and residents along nearby Will Dodge Way, also voted to ban smoking within 20 feet of a doorway or air intake units in the area.

Ashland resident Derek Pyle urged the council to reconsider its thinking when it comes to dealing with downtown behaviors, described as "aggressively loitering," cursing and smoking. He told the council that the homeless are the ones most often affected because they are the ones hanging out with nowhere else to be.

“We need places where they can be," Pyle said, "where they can sleep. Jackson County has been hit hard by poverty. This is reality.” He suggested that, rather than creating places where people cannot be, it would be better to create spots where people are allowed to hang out and even smoke. “If you treat people like criminals, they tend to act more like criminals," Pyle said. "But we have the possibility to bring out the best in people.”

Mayor John Stromberg thanked him for his comments and requested a private meeting to discuss it further.

While all councilors (except Greg Lemhouse, who was absent) voted in favor of increasing the restrictions to Pioneer and Lithia Way, including not allowing people to linger in parking lots or block spaces, many expressed a desire for further review and consideration of Pyle’s perspective.

“I agree that if we treat people like criminals, they act that way," said Traci Darrow, who also works at the Ashland Emergency Food Bank and sees poverty up close in Ashland. "I think we do need more discussion about this long term.” 

Bookstore owner Roy Laird told the council that, while he favors the ordinance, he does not want to create an anti-homeless environment. “This is not about homelessness and never has been," Laird said. "It’s about the behavior.” He added that he would like to see greater resources devoted to helping people who are homeless find housing.

Councilor Mike Morris said he is reluctant to use regulations as solutions, but at times, he said, there are few choices. “We have a situation on a different scale. It was fine to be open and unregulated when people understood about respecting public places, but now we’re stuck having to regulate it.”

The measure is not yet an ordinance. The Ashland City Council will revisit it for a second reading at the next council meeting at 7 p.m. April 18 in the Ashland Council Chambers, 1175 East Main St.

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