Land use watchdog says Grand Terrace project on north end of Ashland violates codes
By Stephen Floyd, Ashland.news
Land use watchdog Rogue Advocates is appealing the annexation of 17 acres along Highway 99 on the north end of Ashland for the proposed Grand Terrace apartment complex, calling the project unlawful and unable to address Ashland’s housing crisis.
On Monday, Dec. 19, the Rogue Advocates board voted to challenge annexation to Oregon’s Land Use Board of Appeals (LUBA), having identified what they see as several legal errors with both the approval process and the development itself.
This decision came one day before the Ashland City Council was set to vote on second and final approval of annexation. The second vote on Dec. 20 was unanimous, as was the first on Dec. 6, with city officials saying they are eager to see the complex completed for the sake of many Ashlanders struggling to find affordable housing.
“I’m hopeful that we can pretty quickly get to the point where we start to see these apartment complexes, these buildings come into being, because people in Ashland are desperately needing somewhere to live,” said Councilor Tonya Graham.
Rogue Advocates member Craig Anderson said the units in Grand Terrace are too small to benefit most families, while 38 out of 230 will be set aside for low-income housing, with the rest likely being sold or leased as vacation homes or units to be rented out during events like Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
“The developer has described Grand Terrace apartments as ‘luxury’ units with expansive views from balconies,” Anderson told Ashland.News. “These units — which will be rented or sold at market rates — will do nothing to address the city’s identified housing needs. They will likely be occupied as second or third homes by summer festival goers or retirees. While there’s nothing wrong with providing housing for these people, it’s not accurate to characterize these units as ‘workforce’ housing or even ‘needed’ housing.”
Council says ‘time to move forward’
The Grand Terrace property, near auto dealerships and other commercial enterprises on the north end of town, was first annexed in 2020 after the Ashland City Council granted an exception to sidewalk safety standards that allow alternative safety features if city code is impractical due to geographic or logistical barriers. However city code did not explicitly allow such exceptions during the annexation process, and Rogue Advocates appealed annexation to LUBA on these grounds.
LUBA reversed annexation in May of 2021, saying the council acted without quasi-judicial authority when it applied planning codes to annexation, and the council has since amended the rules to allow for such considerations during annexation. Because this issue was addressed, city officials said Dec. 20 they hope outstanding problems with the development are behind them and another LUBA appeal won’t hold the project back.
“This has been a long road,” said Councilor Stephen Jensen. “It’s been tedious. The work has been done, very ably done, and it’s time to move forward on this.”
Interim Director of Community Development Brandon Goldman said multiple concerns from the public about Grand Terrace were brought before the Planning Commission in September, who “considered fully” these issues before making its recommendation to approve annexation to the council. But even after due diligence, Goldman said it is still possible for annexation to again be appealed to LUBA.
“I do think that that primary issue has been resolved, both in ordinance and in the application presented by the developer, but new issues could go forward to LUBA and could be adjudicated there,” Goldman said Tuesday, Dec. 20.
Concerns remain, old and new
Anderson said multiple issues have still been identified, including at least eight alleged violations of Ashland Municipal Code. Anderson, whose career has included municipal transport planning and land use planning since 1991 and teaching land use planning at Southern Oregon University, said Ashland’s willingness to skirt its own policies for Grand Terrace demonstrates a desire to trade short-term political and financial gains for long-term success.
“The most critical point of failure stems from the politicization of the development review process in this instance, which has placed intense pressure on staff, the Planning Commission and the Council to turn a blind eye to this application’s obvious legal inconsistencies and shortcomings,” said Anderson. “Ignoring the City’s laws in this particular case has resulted in a proposal that endangers public safety and presents enormous infrastructure challenges, the cost for which will only partially be reimbursed through System Development Charges.”
In a letter to city officials Dec. 6 on behalf of Rogue Advocates, Anderson said Grand Terrace and its approval violate or fail to fulfill city code in instances including:
- Separate approvals of annexation and a site plan when city code requires approval of both in one action.
- Approval of an exception to city code requiring sidewalks along the entirety of the property’s frontage by allowing 2,200 feet of sidewalk along property neither the applicant nor the city control, with no guarantee of access.
- A proposal to extend city water utilities without detailing how or where appropriate improvements would be installed, how the extension would be funded and whether or not easements or property acquisitions would be necessary.
- A proposed crosswalk across the highway supported by a safety study that allegedly failed to identify which city safety standards were being fulfilled, and did not fully account for the safety risks of the high speeds and heavy traffic on the highway.
- An exception to street design standards where normal compliance would be impractical, though applicant’s proposed alternative cannot be guaranteed due to lack of ownership or authority over associated property.
- A vague plan to comply with minimum city standards for affordable housing units in such a development and insufficient square footage of proposed units, with single-bedroom apartments at 499 square feet and studios at 250 square feet though city code requires a minimum of 500 square feet and 350 square feet, respectively.
- A lack of adherence to street design standards when city code requires compliance with design standards in a development with 10 or more buildings without exception.
- A lack of on-street parking, which city code requires without exception.
“Rogue Advocates has no problem with legal development,” said Anderson. “This development, even after multiple code revisions by the city, is not legal. Prior to this development application, this area within the city’s Urban Growth Boundary has not been given much attention in terms of conceptual or long-range planning. For this particular piece of property to be developed consistent with the City’s adopted plans and policies, that long-range planning component is critical. In essence, we have the cart before the horse. Let’s get the horse out front and then see if we can hook up the cart.”
Roundabout may be an alternative
Anderson said, based on his experience, he believes a roundabout in the highway would resolve many of the safety concerns at issue, and would also create a natural entrypoint for the city’s north side. He acknowledged such a feature would not be cheap and would require a jurisdictional transfer from the Oregon Department of Transportation to the city, but he said ODOT has informally supported such a transfer in the past and typically provides financial incentives in such instances.
“As a former transportation planner, I would personally be interested in seeing such a project investigated and, although the cost would be very high, I believe it’s worthy of serious consideration,” he said.
Anderson said he was not surprised when the City Council moved forward with annexation, saying votes against development are “extremely rare.” He said, though there is an “intense need” for affordable housing in Ashland and elsewhere in the Rogue Valley, moving forward with Grand Terrace was not, in his view, the right decision to further this goal.