Economic development and affordable housing also among key issues for Ashland, councilors say
By Damian Mann for Ashland.news
Wildfire risk reduction and a climate action plan topped the list of priorities adopted Tuesday by the Ashland City Council.
The council unanimously approved three main priorities for the 2023-25 city budget that also included economic development and affordable housing.
Affordable housing is also an issue that the Legislature has been working on this session.
“It shows local and state government is laser focused on this issue,” Hyatt said.
Along with affordable housing — some councilors favored the term “attainable housing” — one proposal being discussed is to provide a more equitable rate structure that could offer lower income families a break on their utility bills and help make Ashland more affordable.
“All of this has to be done through the lens of equity and customer service,” said Councilor Paula Hyatt, who made the motion to adopt the priorities.
The city, through committees and community input, will study the best ways to implement the priorities.
Hyatt said the community has been very vocal about the dangers of wildfires and smoke to the health and economic vitality of the community.
The Ashland Oregon Chamber of Commerce conducted a study that found, “Wildfire and smoke are the greatest risks to our local economy,” Hyatt said.
The three main priorities of climate action — which includes wildfire risk reduction, economic development and affordable housing — are linked because of the impact wildfires have had on the region, a situation that is likely to get far worse because of climate change.
In 2020, the Almeda Fire destroyed 2,500 residences, many of them lower-income housing.
An Oregon State University study in 2015 estimated an 86% decrease in snowpack in the region by the year 2080 and an average of 90 or more days a year with severe heat along with more severe wildfires.
Hyatt said greater efforts will be made to harden homes against wildfire dangers as part of risk reduction efforts.
Many existing businesses were hard hit by the pandemic and smoky summers over the past decade.
As a result, another priority is greater economic diversity, including a proposal to promote and develop eco-tourism activities, particularly highlighting Ashland’s extensive trail system for visitors who enjoy mountain biking and hiking.
Even though summers pose a challenge attracting mountain bikers because of smoke, the other seasons of the year provide opportunities for cycling events and extending the tourism season.
Another aspect to the economic development priority is promoting efforts to retain and attract new businesses.
As part of its goal to make Ashland a net-zero greenhouse gas emitter by 2050, the city hopes to execute its Climate Energy and Action Plan, which seeks to make the city more resilient.
In 2015, Ashland’s greenhouse gas emissions footprint was about 300,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, representing 0.5% of Oregon’s total emissions, according to Oregon State University.
Already many new housing developers are building with an eye towards greater electrification of new homes and less reliance on natural gas in response to customer demands.
“Sometimes the government is the mover,” Hyatt said. “Sometimes the market is the first mover. Sometimes it’s a little bit of both.”
The council anticipates that more city buildings will be converted from gas appliances to electric over the coming years. New housing might potentially be required to install only electric appliances, avoiding gas to cut back on greenhouse emissions.
Councilor Bob Kaplan said the Chamber of Commerce’s economic diversity study provides a blueprint that describes how Ashland could become more of a base for recreation along with remaining a culinary, theater and cultural center.
He said Bend has marketed its area for cycling, though mountain biking is more difficult there in the winter and fall months because of snow.
Those are the months when Ashland’s trails could be more of an attraction for eco-tourists, Kaplan said.
Establishing a utility rate structure that would be less for low-income households and more for higher-income households is something Kaplan thinks Ashlanders would ultimately endorse.
“Ashland is a progressive community and believes in providing access to those with less income,” he said.
Reach writer Damian Mann at email@example.com.