Housing project draws ire in Talent

TALENT — A 35-unit housing project that generated opposition from citizens and city officials had enough City Council support to gain the final approval it needed Wednesday night in the third council session on the issue.

“We are going to wait for the appeals time to expire in three weeks, then we’ll start our engineering,” said Charlie Hamilton of Suncrest Homes. Appeals of the decision could be made to the Oregon Land Use Board of Appeals.

Plans call for 35 housing units on 4.37 acres next to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival production shop on Talent Avenue. A mix of townhouses, common-wall buildings and stand-alone houses of 800 to 1,400 square feet are proposed, with prices beginning around $300,000.

The council deliberated for more than six hours over three nights on the development. Planning commissioners had recommended denial of the project on a 5-1 vote. Commissioners were critical of what they deemed a lack of affordable housing in the proposal, setback variances and other project elements. They considered portions of a draft Housing Needs Analysis that has yet to be adopted in their determination. Approval of the project was to be based on current regulations.

“I’m kind of surprised that the council wouldn’t support the Planning Commission recommendation on this,” said Talent resident Derek Volkart. “It seems like they crammed through a spot zoning change.”

Talent will need about 600 new housing units over the next 10 years to accommodate anticipated growth, according to the needs analysis. One Realtor reported in early March that Talent had only six non-fixer-upper homes for sale starting at $329,000.

“When you build new houses, older houses don't rise in value as quickly,” said Councilor Ryan Pederson. “This addresses a very real need for middle-income families.”

Mayor Darby Stricker advocated against the approval.

“I believe the Planning Commission findings were accurate and should have been upheld,” said Stricker. “The Planning Commission had invested a great deal of time and study into the matter and there were enough findings that didn’t support staff.”

A recently adopted new economic element of the comprehensive plan calls for analysis of land to determine its best and highest use, said Stricker. Councilman Daniel Wise pointed out that as many as 70 housing units could be built on the land.

“We failed to address that mechanism already in the Comprehensive Plan,” said Stricker, but she acknowledged that associated policies to implement the mechanism are not developed to conduct the analysis.

Wise added conditions to the subdivision approval process that were considered at a special meeting March 8. Councilors had to approve four separate actions, either ordinances or amendments. The final motion Wednesday for a zoning change on the site was approved by councilors Ken Baker, Christina Collins, John Harrison and Pederson. Wise and Emily Berlant voted against the approval.

“It was a pretty rough process. There were more city officials going after the project than citizens. It was a very big battle,” said Hamilton. “We were so grateful that those four councilors realized there is a housing crisis and we need to do something.”

Some of the conditions proposed by Wise and approved by the council will be a burden but are not enough to make him walk away from the project, said Hamilton.

Volkart said he might file an ethics complaint against Hamilton because Hamilton sat on a citizens advisory committee to help prepare the draft Housing Needs Analysis and to consider affordability issues.

“That an appointed official would use an insider position for an apparent sweetheart deal to generate housing that really doesn’t appear to be workforce housing is adding insult to injury,” said Volkart.

Planning commissioners and the council have yet to hold public hearings before adopting that analysis as part of the comprehensive plan. Once that is done, rules could be adopted that would affect how land is used.

— Tony Boom is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at tboomwriter@gmail.com.

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