A 72-unit studio apartment complex can go ahead, city councilors decided Dec. 18, but some neighbors plan to appeal the decision to the state Land Use Board of Appeals.
The council unanimously rejected eight of the 12 objections raised by appellants to city Planning Commission approval of the MidTown Lofts project at 188 Garfield St. Two others were rejected after tie-breaking votes by Mayor John Stromberg when the council split 3-3, and the other two found only Councilor Stefani Seffinger in opposition.
About 15 neighbors showed up in opposition to this development, claiming that a 2.1-acre lot is too small to house 72 people and 64 vehicles.
Two of these neighbors are lawyers and they represented others in the neighborhood opposing the development at the appeal. They said the Planning Commission shouldn’t have approved this development and that the commission failed to uphold 12 separate city standards.
Time constraints boxed in the council. This meeting was the last of the year for the current council members before two are replaced by newcomers. Also, the city needed to approve or deny the application by by Dec. 21, two days after the meeting. City Attorney David Lohman said if no action is taken in that time, the application could move forward.
The appellants and lawyers, Devin Huseby and Michael Hitsky, claimed that the density bonuses granted to the property owner, Spartan Ashland Rivergate Real Estate, were invalid.
Neighbor and landlord to adjacent townhouses, Michael Gutman, said Ashland code allows 20 units per acre. Because this is a 2.1-acre parcel, there should only be 42 units allowed. But density bonuses were approved for conservation housing, outdoor recreation space and major recreation facilities. The Planning Commission approved an outdoor barbecue area and three open grassy areas and various patio spaces as “an adult playground” and granted an additional 30 units.
A major recreation area is generally defined as a space that allows for something like a tennis or basketball court, Senior Planner Derek Severson said in his presentation.
“For the sheer density of it, they’re asking for 72 percent more kitchens, or units, than what code allows,” appellant Gutman said.
Gutman said Ashland has a unique rule called the three-quarter rule, which states that if a unit is less than 500 square feet, then it only counts as three-quarters. This is another way to grant density bonuses.
The property applicant has claimed that each unit is 500 square feet, but the appellants and neighbors who spoke in the public forum portion of the appeal, claim that this measurement should include the exterior square footage as well and that it does not. Gutman said the square footage can generally be calculated at 10 percent of the living space, so in this case, it would be an additional 50 square feet. If this is true, then these apartments are actually 550 square feet.
“The neighbors are kind of upset because they presented this proposal as a ‘no-variance’ proposal, which means they’re not asking for anything special, but they’re actually asking for many exceptions,” Gutman said.
Gutman also said safety has been compromised by the approval to combine two driveways into one on Quincy Street and to build a secondary driveway on Garfield Street which would serve the 72 residents and a flag lot that currently uses the driveway.
The appellants were also concerned about parking.
There are 64 proposed off-street parking spaces. Two parking credits were granted given the bike hooks that are planned to be provided in every studio, and the two bike racks in front of the two ADA accessible units. It was determined six cars can park on the street.
City staff recommended that the council reject the appeal and approve the Planning Commission findings.
The council and the city attorney made it clear on several occasions that the council could not vote on what they personally thought, but rather on whether they thought the Planning Commission had reasonable rationale and substantial evidence for making these decisions.
The council unanimously agreed that eight of the 12 appeal topics be rejected. In other words, they agreed that the Planning Commission did right by city standards.
Two decisions — the density bonus for a major recreation facility and a claim that the planning commission didn’t allow all parties to respond to new evidence — resulted a split vote which the mayor tipped into the affirmative.
Two additional claims, whether there’s insufficient parking and that the city failed to make the full record public prior to the hearing, was voted inaccurate by all councilors except Seffinger.
Seffinger was also the only councilor who did not affirm the Planning Commission’s actions at the end vote.
Councilor Dennis Slattery voted to reject the appeal and allow the project to proceed, but he did say that the legal process is unfair because the appellants aren’t given an opportunity to address conditions.
“In our process, if I’m understanding it correctly, it says the one side gets to make changes and the other side can’t comment on it and to me that’s a weakness,” Slattery said.
The appellants said they plan to take the appeal to the state level.
One of the appellants, Huseby, said the neighborhood is in favor of affordable housing and agrees that Ashland has a desperate need for it. He said the number of units in this case is excessive.
“We are in support of multi-family housing,” Huseby said. “We are in favor of infill and we are in favor of a code-compliant development at 188 Garfield St., but there needs to be a balance between the development of dense housing and the impacts of such developments.”