Parts of Normal Neighborhood Plan approved

Plans that would guide development of a 94-acre piece of the Normal Avenue neighborhood if and when it is annexed into the city were partly approved by the City Council on Tuesday. The council also directed staff to try find ways the city can expedite the cleanup of property near the railroad tracks to the fullest extent possible with the least amount of hazard to neighbors.

The Normal Avenue item was before the council for the third time for the first of two legally required readings of the ordinance that would implement the plan, which has been years in the making. Tuesday's session saw councilors casting votes into the final seconds leading up to the mandatory 10:30 p.m. close of the meeting.

The council passed amended versions of two ordinances in the proposed Normal Neighborhood Plan. More will be, it's expected, voted on at the council's next meeting. The NNP is a planning framework that would govern any future development in about 94 acres of privately held land inside the city’s urban growth boundary at the northern terminus of Normal Avenue between the railroad tracks and East Main Street. The property, a patchwork of parcels owned by different entities, currently resides within the county and is not subject to city zoning.

The first time the NNP came before the council most public comment roundly criticized the plan as having too high a development density and for not accurately mapping wetlands areas in the Normal neighborhood. A second session saw more mixed comments as some residents spoke up for what they saw as an opportunity for proactive planning and for construction of much-needed low income housing in the city.

Tuesday’s meeting saw the council adopt an ordinance that would incorporate the Normal Neighborhood Plan into the comprehensive development plan for the city if it is approved in second reading. It would also change the zoning in the Normal Neighborhood from single family residential and suburban residential to higher density designations outlined in the plan should a piece of property be annexed by the city. A small area of commercial development would also be allowed at the northeast corner of the neighborhood abutting East Main Street. The original ordinance was amended to reduce the size of the commercially zoned area by about half.

The second ordinance passed Tuesday mapped transportation infrastructure in the area, including improvements to East Main Street to accommodate the expected increase in vehicle traffic associated with additional housing in the area. It also provides development guidance for pedestrian thoroughfares and local streets to serve potential developments. The original ordinance was amended to modify the definition of a shared street within the plan.

A third ordinance that would amend the municipal code to establish a new Normal Neighborhood District, establish a Normal Neighborhood zoning classification, and create a Normal Neighborhood Special District within the Normal Neighborhood area did not come to a vote by close of meeting.

Also at Tuesday’s meeting, the council continued a study session with representatives from the Department of Environmental Quality and Union Pacific Railroad’s environmental consultant, CH2MHill, regarding the cleanup of about 20 aces of UPRR land within the city limits, across the tracks from Railroad Park. The city has advocated having the site, located between Hersey and A Streets north of the tracks, cleaned to residential standards for years.

The property, the site of a former rail yard, is contaminated with petroleum byproducts and heavy metals. An underground fuel bunker also exists on the property and is at the heart of cleanup plans for the site. In 2011, the Ashland City Council was successful in having a deed restriction placed on the property that mandates any cleanup of the property conform to environmental standards consistent with residential zoning.

Upon discussions with UPRR, however, it was determined that the restriction created confusion for UPRR while developing a cleanup plan as it did not match any specific DEQ designation. Any cleanup plan developed by UPRR is first subject to DEQ approval. Councilor Pam Marsh said while the city wanted to see the property cleaned to high standards, it wanted to see action taken on the site.

“Right now we have a great deal of assurance about the cleanup,” Marsh said. “But we don’t have any cleanup.”

The council directed city staff to work with CH2MHill to determine whether it might expedite cleanup of the site if the deed restriction were lifted. UPRR has said it would be more likely to clean up the property to DEQ residential standards if the ambiguity surrounding the deed restriction was clarified. Representatives at the meeting stated that UPRR would like to complete the cleanup in order to prepare the site for sale.

Alec Dickinson is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at AlecAlaska@gmail.com.

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