Ashland council should get out of the way

The Ashland City Council could decide this week whether to appeal a Jackson County judge's ruling against the city in its dispute with the Mount Ashland Association over plans to expand the ski area. It would be in the best interest of Ashland taxpayers and residents of the entire region if the city decided not to appeal.

On Thursday, Jackson County Circuit Judge Mark Schively ruled that the city has no authority to impose conditions on the expansion or to prevent the Mount Ashland Association from working directly with the Forest Service on the project. The city had argued it had such authority because it holds the special use permit issued by the Forest Service for the ski area.

City officials in 1992 agreed to hold the permit only to help a community effort to raise money to buy the ski area after its private owners decided to close it and remove the lift equipment. Then-mayor Cathy Shaw and retired city administrator Brian Almquist testified in Schively's court that the city never intended to become involved in running the ski area. Holding the special use permit made the community fund drive possible because the city could receive tax-deductible donations and state economic development funds. The newly formed Mount Ashland Association would have been unlikely to qualify for state funding and would have had to wait six months to obtain nonprofit status, by which time the ski area's equipment would have been gone.

A decade later, the association's proposal to expand the ski area triggered opposition from some Ashland residents because of potential risks to the city's water supply and opposition to removing trees to make room for more ski runs.

The Forest Service's Draft Environmental Impact Statement found that the project would actually reduce the ski area's effect on the city's water supply, and the trees proposed for removal constitute a tiny fraction of the timber in the watershed. But that didn't stop the opponents, who convinced a majority of the City Council to get involved in the issue.

The result: A handful of council members in a town of 20,000 people effectively put the brakes on plans to improve a ski area that serves not only the rest of Jackson County but the entire region. In the process, the council has spent $300,000 of public money on attorneys' fees — plus, after it lost the case on Thursday, the Mount Ashland Association's fees as well.

The modest ski area expansion, which has now been delayed for years, would allow Mount Ashland to compete with larger ski areas in the region and remain viable for the future.

The delays are not over yet: The expansion still must pass muster in federal court, where opponents won a ruling forcing the Forest Service to amend its environmental review.

But Schively's ruling ought to convince at least Ashland's civic leaders to get out of the way.

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