Historic districts on road to revamped rules

Rules governing Ashland's historic districts are headed for a possible makeover that would bring clarity to building codes and broaden the boundaries of the districts, according to a proposal that will go before the City Council later this year.

City leaders expressed support for the plan to update Ashland's Historic Preservation Program Tuesday evening, and called for more homes to be recognized as historic and for more public programs to encourage appreciation of the Downtown, Railroad, Siskiyou Hargadine and Skidmore Academy historic districts.

The Planning Commission study session, held jointly with the Historic Commission and City Council, gave city officials a chance to weigh in on the proposed changes and suggest other modifications.

"In terms of the historic districts, just generally, I think they're very important to Ashland and to our economy," said Historic Commissioner Terry Skibby at the meeting. "Maintaining our historic districts as much as possible will benefit Ashland and our base economy. I think everyone can kind of understand that."

The proposal is the result of a study by Kimberli Fitzgerald, a Historic Preservation Consultant contracted by the city to revamp Ashland's preservation process. The city received an $11,000 grant in 2007 from the Oregon State Historic Preservation Office for the project.

Beginning this May, Fitzgerald surveyed city officials, building experts and local residents to find out where problems lay and also assessed the building code for inconsistencies.

"It's a balance, you want to be sensitive to the owner of the building and also try to preserve as much as you can. That's why the best codes are a balance. You don't have a heavy stick," Fitzgerald told the city officials.

The new 10-year-plan would create a new homeowner handbook, increase the number of walking tours of historic properties, and provide funding for maintenance and restoration of historic properties.

The city's inventory of historic buildings would be updated and officials would try to designate additional properties as historic, under the plan.

Planning Commissioner Michael Dawkins suggested some of Ashland's farmhouses be assessed and possibly listed in the inventory.

The city might also be able to get Lithia Springs included in the National Register of Historic Places, Fitzgerald said.

Thirty Ashland properties are already listed in the Register. About 900 buildings in the city's four preservation districts are designated as historic.

Funding for the preservation programs will likely come from state grants, said Maria Harris, city planning manager.

Ashland could be eligible to become a Preserve America Community, which would qualify the city for additional grants, Fitzgerald added.

The Historic Preservation Program update should also include provisions in the city building plan for homes that want to utilize green technology, such as solar panels, said City Councilor Cate Hartzell.

"It's that interface between retaining our history and at the same time bringing people into a period where other things are also important," she said.

Planning Commissioner Pam Marsh said Ashland residents need to be made more aware of building code specifications.

"I live in a historic district and as I was reading this report, I realized how little I knew about what I could do. I really have very little clue about how all this works and I would love to have a booklet on what I can do," she said.

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