Ashland, OR. As a result of Rogue Advocates’ successful May 2021 appeal of the Grand Terrace annexation, the City of Ashland was forced to acknowledge the multitude of ways in which the annexation’s approval violated the City’s laws. But rather than require that the applicant conform to Ashland’s annexation code––which mandates that newly-annexed areas provide “safe and accessible” bicycle, pedestrian and transit facilities ––the City of Ashland took the low road by amending their annexation code in order to legalize what was previously illegal.
The Grand Terrace appeal involved the Council’s decision to grant an “exception” to street design standards governing safety and accessibility when annexing property for the Grand Terrace development despite there being no legal mechanism for granting such an exception and avoiding the requirements. The City has framed its amendments as intending to address issues raised in Rogue Advocates’ appeal and to improve clarity to the annexation process.
Under the new amendments, the City has permitted itself to grant exceptions and variances for annexation proposals to meet the standards for street safety and accessibility. The amendments erode the previous potency of Ashland’s strong and progressive street design standards, which uniquely focus on facilitating safe and accessible pedestrian, bike, and bus traffic and ensuring connectivity to the rest of the City. An exception is now permitted if the “purposes, intent, and background” of the street design standards are still met but there is either “demonstrable difficulty” in meeting the specific standards or if the exception will “result in a design that equally or better achieves” the standards. This exception adds several new layers of subjectivity to these standards (for example, what constitutes demonstrable difficulty? And when is a design equal or better than another one?) that are ripe for misuse.
The ostensible purpose for these rule changes is to remove unnecessary roadblocks to adding desperately needed affordable housing to the City. While Rogue Advocates supports greater clarity in the annexation process and recognizes the acute need to expand affordable housing in Ashland in part through a straightforward annexation process, the amendments add a new level of discretion and associated complexity to the annexation process. Rather than providing clarity to the process as was one of the Council’s stated goals in adopting the amendments, these changes may actually make annexation more complex and time intensive as the waters have been muddied with additional subjective standards.
The City’s annexation decisions utilizing this exception will need to be closely monitored to ensure new proposals are in fact still promoting the sustainability and livability of Ashland and still adhering to the “purposes, intent, and background” of the standards governing new development and annexation. Sacrificing public safety and livability in the name of affordable housing does not justify the means of rewriting the rules to allow more discretion and more thoughtless growth at the expense of community values and the safety of those moving into affordable housing.
Ashland will be better off if its current residents don’t swallow the myth that more growth will magically solve its housing problem. It should see growth for what it is, a temporary fix at best, and it certainly shouldn’t sacrifice long-term public safety and livability for a band aid to the problem. It should look for real long-term solutions that are attainable at the local level. It should ask itself if and how much it wants to keep growing and how much it wants to pay for that.
In the meantime, since Ashland will invest public money in new growth, it has a right to see that this money is well spent. It should just say no to developers looking for handouts, be it public safety concessions or some other form of subsidy, Instead the city should invest in developments that not just talk the smart growth talk but walk the walk by paying their own way. And Ashland should send packing any decision maker that does not hold with these values.
Although Ashland has now enacted this additional flexibility into its decision making process for annexations, we encourage the City to continue to aspire to meet its progressive street design standards and ensure that any new annexation adds to the livability and accessibility of the City rather than using the new exception process as an escape route to push unwise development through approval.
 Ordinance No. 3204, Section 2 (AMC 18.4.6.020(B)), https://www.ashland.or.us/SIB/files/12212021_annexation_code_amedments_Ord.pdf.