City's home construction up

Builders are constructing more single-family homes and apartments in Ashland, but are still shying away from commercial construction. That has led to a significant drop in revenue for the city, but officials say they are reluctant to cut back on planning staff further.

The good news for builders clearly has come in residential construction, with numbers showing an uptick from the dismal showing in 2008-09.

"Single-family residential development has picked up," Ashland Community Development Department Director Bill Molnar said.

During the height of the building boom in the city's 2004-05 fiscal year, the department issued 123 building permits for single-family homes. That number kept falling in subsequent years, bottoming out at 18 building permits for houses in the city's last fiscal year.

As of May 6, with almost two months to go before the current fiscal year ends on June 30, the Community Development Department had issued 25 single-family home building permits.

Multi-family housing construction was at its peak in the 2005-2006 fiscal year when the department issued 23 multi-family housing building permits. The department issued only one multi-family housing building permit last fiscal year, but so far this year has issued 10 permits.

In 2004-05, commercial construction hit its high point with 29 commercial building permits issued, but the number sank to 15 permits issued last year. That has declined even further, to five, which barring a significant increase would result in by far the lowest total in the six years since the peak.

"Where we've seen little improvement is with commercial development, probably because of the difficulty with lending for those projects," Molnar said.

Commercial development generates most of the revenue brought in by the Community Development Department. The department's budget has remained above $2 million for several years, despite a steep drop-off in revenues.

Combined revenues for the planning and building divisions hit a high of about $1.5 million in the 2004-05 fiscal year. Revenues fell for several years, and now are projected at about $400,000 for the coming fiscal year, according to budget documents.

In reviewing the department's projected budget, some Citizens' Budget Committee members have questioned why spending has remained steady in recent years while revenues have plummeted.

The Community Development Department has trimmed its staff from the equivalent of 17.8 full-time employees at its high point to 12.5 for the coming fiscal year.

The department has kept its three planners while cutting a secretary, a development services manager, a code compliance person and building inspectors, according to budget documents.

Molnar said the planners have stayed busy with long-range planning efforts, such as the Croman Mill site redevelopment plan.

Mayor John Stromberg, a former Planning Commission member, recalled that commissioners worried about the lack of long-range planning during the building boom.

"We would say, 'When is the long-range planning going to get done?'" he said.

Stromberg said Ashland needs to keep planners on staff to handle building activity as it picks up, especially commercial construction, which tends to be more complicated.

"That's going to be part of the economic recovery of the community," he said.

City Administrator Martha Bennett said eliminating planners and then trying to hire them back during a building upswing isn't practical.

"When the economy turns around, these people are almost impossible to find," she said.

Bennett said planners also have been handling a number of small-scale projects, such as remodels, that still require staff time but don't generate as much revenue as big commercial developments.

Some people appear to have taken advantage of the construction slowdown by hiring struggling contractors to do remodels.

During the 2004-05 fiscal year, the Community Development Department issued 13 tenant improvement building permits. That number jumped to 45 permits last fiscal year, then slipped to 22 permits issued as of May 6.

The city government itself got good deals on street and sidewalk improvements in 2009 when recession-battered construction companies submitted lower than expected bids amid fierce competition for work.

Staff writer Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com.

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