Revised land use laws approved

The Ashland City Council approved the first reading of new and revised land use ordinances at a special meeting Monday night.

The changes were brought about from a report completed by consultant Scott Siegel back in April 2006. Former community development director David Stalheim made further changes that eventually were agreed upon by the Ashland Planning Commission.

The changes were first presented to the City Council in December 2007 and have been discussed several times in the past three months.

The council approved the new codes 5-1, with councilor Eric Navickas voting against the ordinance changes.

The most discussed issue at the meeting was new rules for planning appeals. Currently, when Type II applications are appealed after a ruling with the planning commission, the appeal is heard by the city council under "denovo" rules, rather than "on the record."

Denovo means that the application is reheard by the council in its entirety; while an "on the record" appeal would mean that the council only looks at the issues being brought up on appeal. The new code applies an "on the record" process to planning application appeals.

New testimony will not be heard at the appeal. However, the council could reopen the record and consider new evidence if the planning commission committed a procedural error, received a factual error or if new evidence crucial to the decision on appeal exists but was not available while the record of the proceedings was open.

Councilor Russ Silbiger said he supported the idea of the planning commission being the place for testimony regarding the application, and making the council strictly the appeal authority.

Navickas said the changes to the appeal process were significant.

"It's fair that citizens get to speak to their elected officials, not to an appointed body," he said. "Many of our citizens do not follow what's happening with the planning commission. They only follow the city council. And this would cut them out of the discussion."

Mayor John Morrison said, "I think we are making these changes to streamline the process and we're asking citizens to be responsible for following the issues. We're not trying to cut anyone out of this."

The ordinance indicates that only people who participated in the planning process, meaning the applicants, people who submitted written comments and people who spoke during the planning process, would be allowed to participate in the appeal process at the city council.

The ordinance further requires that oral arguments will only be heard if written arguments were submitted 10 days before the council considers the appeal and that the arguments can only deal with the appeal issues.

City Attorney Richard Appicello said the rule would prevent people from attending meetings just to complain.

"We think when people have to write down what they want to say, then it helps them to focus on the issue and state things clearly and actually add something constructive to the issue," he said.

Navickas said, "I think it's a Kafkaesque way of excluding the public."

Evidentiary hearings

Changes to Ashland's land use ordinances also include a new process, called an evidentiary hearing, being conducted before the planning commission's public hearing on certain Type II applications.

Community Development Director Bill Molnar told the council that he would determine if an evidentiary hearing was necessary if he knew the application would be difficult to understand or if it was going to be a contentious application.

He described the hearing as being "more formal than a developer speaking to a neighborhood group but less formal than a public hearing at a planning commission."

Molnar said evidentiary hearings could be conducted in the Council Chambers or the Siskiyou Room in the community development building on Winburn Way. He said the applicant, neighbors and the public would attend.

"We would explain the project, explain the criteria the commission is applying to the project and then open it up for questions and comments," said Molnar. "We would also explain what to expect at the planning commission meeting."

He said a lot of people who aren't familiar with the planning process spend most of their allotted time to speak at public meetings trying to figure out what the issues are.

"This would be a way to address that. Then by the time this went before the planning commission, these people would have a very good understanding of what's involved."

Appicello also explained that everything said and presented at the evidentiary hearing would be made part of the record, and would then be reviewed by the planning commission.

The second reading, when the changes become final, will be announced at a future date.

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