Agendas and Minutes

Planning Commission (View All)

Planning & Historic Commissions Joint Study Session

Tuesday, April 23, 2002






APRIL 23, 2002


Chair Mike Gardiner call the meeting to order at 7:10 p.m. Other Planning Commissioners present were Alex Amarotico, Mike Morris, Russ Chapman, John Fields, and Ray Kistler. Absent members were Kerry KenCairn, Marilyn Briggs and Colin Swales. Planning Staff present were John McLaughlin, Bill Molnar, Mark Knox, Maria Harris and Sue Yates.

Historic Commission members present were Dale Shostrom, Joan Steele, Keith Chambers, Jay Leighton, Joanne Krippaehne, Gary Foll, Tom Giordano, and Terry Skibby. Absent member was Robert Saladoff.

Mayor Alan DeBoer was present. Councilors present were Don Laws and Chris Hearn. Cate Hartzell arrived later. Absent members were Susan Reid, Kate Jackson and John Morrison.



John McLaughlin said the discussion tonight will focus on setting limits on maximum house size. The Planning Commission and Historic Commission had a study session a couple of months ago to discuss this topic. The issue was brought before the City Council and the Council asked for a further look into whether or not some action should be taken. The Council asked to meet with the Historic Commission and they also invited the Planning Commission because whatever standards might evolve would involve land use that would be implemented by the Planning Commission.

McLaughlin said the trend is that we are seeing larger houses built nationwide. The lot sizes, in general, are decreasing or staying near the same size. In Ashland, we are seeing people redeveloping existing homes in existing neighborhoods, doing additions, making larger homes to match up with their perceived needs. We start to see existing neighborhoods of what was a pattern of smaller homes changing through demolition and replaced by a larger home. We are seeing some concerns of this in the Historic District. There is an example of a small house (1000 sq. ft.) on Granite Street that was going to be demolished and replaced with a large home (5,000 sq. ft.). That raised concerns. There have been large additions. There have been lots consolidated to allow for a larger lot for a larger home.

In doing a quick web search, there are many communities that have different ways of setting a limit on house size for all different reasons.

McLaughlin believes we need to define what it is we are trying to fix and what we want to address. Letís define the problem. All the problems have different facets to them. Is it streetscape compatibility and looking at the facades along a streetscape? Is it size? Is the design incompatible with the neighborhood? Are the concerns with demolition and lot consolidation? Is the issue limited to the Historic District or the city at large?


Giordano wondered if we were speaking of mostly single family. McLaughlin affirmed. We currently have design standards for multi-family. McLaughlin believes there has been some agreement that this should be related primarily to the Historic District because that is the resource we are trying to protect. However, there has been some discussion that the city as a whole is at some risk.

Hearn said there is a family he is aware of that has a number of foster children. We have already identified a problem that our population is lacking in the age group 35-45 years old. He is concerned if we start limiting house size too much, is that sending a message that we donít want people with large families in town? We donít want to have a chilling effect on large families living in our city.

Giordano believes there is a trend of working out of the home. There is a benefit to that. It limits vehicle trips. Office space in a house can take up some room. He did not think we would want to discourage that.

Chambers does not think the ultimate size of the house is the issue. He can envision where people have really large houses in the hills. He believes the real issue is the upsetting of the balance and rhythms of the neighborhoods. He would like to propose this is a citywide issue.

Laws said that he can agree that while we are concerned about changing the nature of neighborhood, he would definitely want to limit it to the Historic District. We would be more likely to reach consensus if we limit it to the Historic District.

Foll believes we need to start with the Historic District. The homes are confined to a specific era in time. There can be parameters to enforce an era.

Skibby sees a problem with the loss of historic structure. A lot of times what we are seeing are additions and new homes that are not in compliance with the standards of scale and mass. The original house can lose its integrity. A historic house lost is part of loss of the historic inventory.

McLaughlin said in addition to asking if there is a problem, is there a problem in our community at this point and is this a problem that needs a new ordinance. Are there recent examples or long-term examples of properties at risk?

Kistler asked McLaughlin what he sees as the perceived scale of the problem. He heard about the Granite Street house and he hears about issues relating to demolition and the replacement of a house that is not compatible.

Steele said the Historic Commission sees a lot of examples. They are often able to discuss with potential remodelers size and scale. Often people who buy homes in historic districts cherish the fact that they have a resource. She noted that back in the "old days" they used to have six or seven children in the house without having seven bedrooms and six bathrooms. It has been her experience that most of the larger construction has been for older couples. The charm of Ashland is largely located in the historic core of the city. If we donít protect our core, Ashland will look like any other town in the western corridor.

McLaughlin applauded the Historic Commission for their extreme success in working with applicants on getting projects brought into scale or modified in a way that greatly improves compatibility from what was initially requested.

Gardiner asked if there is a trend or a dangerous trend with this happening more frequently that would require an ordinance?

McLaughlin said in the example of the house on Granite Street, the owners knew they could build a large home even though they were advised it would not be compatible. Even though the Historic Commission has had a long history of success, there is still the chance someone will come in and blow by the process.

Giordano feels the Site Design Standards are helpful. McLaughlin noted the Site Design Guidelines donít apply to single family homes that arenít individually listed on the National Register. The standards are applied in an advisory way, however, there is potential for people to not follow the design standards.

Skibby said itís always possible we could get overwhelmed. It is important there is something in place to fall back on. Itís hard to rely on an advisory capacity.

Leighton said she can remember two cases where people said the scale and volume were similar to homes in the area, but not necessarily in the immediate neighborhood. As more and more houses are being remodeled, the square footage they are comparing is slowly growing. Ten years ago what would have been a 1200 square foot house is now a 2500 square foot house.

Laws is concerned with the demolition. Our current demolition ordinance could be found illegal if it went to court. He is concerned if we donít have something else in place, demolition would be a way for people to build larger house.

At this point, there was general agreement the issue would be limited to the Historic District.


Public Input

PHILIP LANG feels it would be desirable to have more public input. He is not clear what the Commission wants to accomplish here. He noted most ordinances are ignored, not enforced or repealed. He would recommend the city do a lot better job of enforcing and obeying the ordinances already in place.

MARIE DONOVAN came to hear what everyone had to say. Is this a problem? Is there an overwhelming number of homes getting demolished? How many large homes are there vs. small homes? It is important to keep in mind that housing inventory serves a variety of people. She sees, many times, people buying and building here that have large families and if they do not, they still support the school system.

Chambers said he does not think we have quantified a problem, but those serving on these bodies are feeling increased pressure to tear down homes and build large homes. The standards we have now are advisory and we are just trying to find ways to prevent bad mistakes before they happen. He doesnít think anyone wants to impose unnecessary new laws.

Donovan said she doesn't like to have everyone's right to creativity removed.

Laws said the Council took the position there is a problem. They wanted something recommended to them as to how to cure the problem and referred back to the Historic and Planning Commissions to do something. What we are seeing as noted in the Needs Assessment, certain trends are taking place in the city that are going to push us in this direction in the long-term. Because of the recent trends, he would like to see some minimum standards set a little tighter. He commended the Historic Commission on their work.

Foll asked Donovan, as a realtor, what appeals to potential clients and what does she tell them when showing homes in the Historic District? Donovan tells people there are standards and there is a Historic Commission that has criteria to be followed. Most people looking at these homes want that historic look. She has sold plenty of historic homes and people have done nothing but enhance them.

Steele said she agrees that most people looking want that look. The problem faced by the Historic Commission is that they can advise, counsel and plea, but the Historic Commission has no teeth. They canít make people do anything. If their plans for a single family residence meet building code, there is nothing the Historic Commission can do. This has happened several times in the last year where people go through with large additions, doing whatever they wanted. It is very frustrating. The Commissioners volunteer and they love historic neighborhoods.

Hartzell arrived.

Hearn wondered if Donovan is concerned about Ashland losing its ambience and character. Donovan is not fearful of losing that.

Skibby said we are getting National Register Historic Districts. That opens up the doors for property tax freezes for many properties that qualify. When a house is moved or demolished, or remodeled beyond reason, it is lost. The Historic Commission has a review board that meets weekly. They look at every planning action and building permit in the Historic District. He has been looking at them since 1989. He is seeing a trend of larger houses and threat of losing some of our historic buildings. He remembers an 1870ís home moved for a craftsman style house on the site. The structure was lost. A house is built that looks historic but there is an age requirement. As long as you have the original houses, it gives value to the district.

Donovan has seen houses that are very old and falling down and someone turns around and tries to give the house some life. Sometimes trying to save something to the original becomes too costly. She believes, however, it is important to save our historic homes.

DeBoer said this issue came to the Council because of George Kramer. He disagrees with Laws. He felt when the Council sent it back is that they were asking this group of people if there is a problem or not. Some ordinances do more damage than good. We all have different opinions. We are also building now what will be our history later. Would the Swedenbug House, for example, have been too large? That is part of our history. We have to be careful. Some of the large homes built years ago are now multi-family and affordable houses. Part of what makes Ashland livable are the big lots with smaller houses. It is a combination of everything that makes Ashland. He does not think the tax freeze is a benefit to someone because Measure 50 limited property taxes to only three percent a year. He commended the Historic Commission and believes the changes they have made have been huge. Out of 100 people building a house, there is probably one person who will not follow the Historic Commissionís recommendations. That will happen no matter what the ordinances are. If we start to make an ordinance to change a perceived problem to deal with just the one person, is there a problem? He has talked with a lot of people that are completely opposed to any kind of ordinance that limits their property rights. With regard to meeting notification, DeBoer said we are here tonight to see if there is a problem. If we go forward, there will be a public meeting process. He would just as soon see this dropped. He does not see a problem.

GEORGE KRAMER said he is surprised how this has become a complicated issue. He believes an ordinance is important. We have now established how small you can go, but not how large you can go. All he is asking for is a finite limit--an upper end. He envisions all of design review as establishing a level playing field. Tell people the boundaries and they can do anything they want within those boundaries. Does anyone think houses are going to be getting smaller?

There are three major reasons to consider adopting a fixed maximum size limit in the designated Historic District. The first is quality of life and historic character. By not establishing a maximum, we are creating increased pressure on the modest dwellings that are already in the Historic District. That canít help but lead to more demolitions, more significant additions that are out of scale, that ultimately comprise the character of those traditional neighborhoods. That does not mean saving every historic building. As the districts change and as we lose historic buildings, whatever we get in exchange reflects the traditional scale we are trying to retain.

Kramer said with regard to scale that it is true the intrusion or the anomaly can often become historic. Even the most cutting edge of architects respected the context they were building in. They respected the traditional street and the way houses served together to form a private wall of public space that creates the neighborhoods we experience. Cities regulate scale all the time. Ashland regulates height, setbacks, etc. We have award-winning design standards. He wants the Council/Commissions to draw a line.

Not having an upper limit has an impact on the affordability of our housing. Small buildings in the Historic District already include many of Ashlandís rentals and their most affordable housing because they are small. These structures will continue to become less affordable as new buyers seek the land they are sitting on knowing they can build a larger house. Our historic building stock is prey to simple land value through speculation. You can buy a house knowing you can tear it down and build a 5,000 square foot house. A lot of historic preservationists fight infill because there is trade-off between preserving a historic building and increasing density. Ashland has a long tradition of promoting infill. When we are not willing to annex land and expand our Urban Growth Boundary, both of which Kramer supports, people have to go somewhere. They go to big lots and try to put more people in the same space. We have this weird sort of infill that is actually hollowing out. We are putting fewer people in the same space because we are tearing down little houses or two houses and creating an opportunity to build one large one. With the affordable housing information coming out recently, it shows it is hard to be a starting young family with kids and buy a house in Ashland. The land is more valuable than the house that sits on it.

Kramer believes we should apply the maximum size ordinance just to the primary dwelling, not to a detached garage and not to any accessory dwellings. We should consider creating bonuses for a compatible addition.

Kramer does not believe the current regulations establish a finite size limitation thus promoting speculation and encouraging pushing the envelope. The envelope is bound to get larger. The average house built in 2001 was 2255 square feet. We see massive additions to existing dwellings and he doesnít see any reason this situation is going to abate. He does not think the Floor Area Ratio without a maximum limit will do what we want it to do unless we set a maximum size. This shouldnít be complicated. He has been throwing around 2500 square feet based on 10 percent larger than the average house size. We need to set a limit. You can tear a house down, but you canít build bigger than X. They will buy in the Historic District or they will buy someplace else in Ashland.

He knows there are concerns that this is not a worthwhile use of staff time. He doesnít believe planning should be about waiting for a problem to arise and reacting to it. Planning is about envisioning where you want your community to go and developing a framework to help you get there efficiently. This is an opportunity to do that. He believes it is highly unlikely staff will spend more time drafting the ordinance we are discussing than they now spend trying to make silk purses out of the increasingly large sowís ears that are being presented. Once established, a finite limit will by definition cut out the most egregious applications at the counter. Even the worst sort of infill will at least match the scale. This is a step in the right direction. It establishes an easy to enforce, easy to understand, upper end limit to what Ashland will accept within the portions of the neighborhood we have already agreed we want to protect.

Hartzell wondered if there was a threshold for change within the Historic District that would trigger the loss of that status. Kramer said if more than 50 percent of the contributing resources within a district are lost or destroyed or determined to have been so altered that they no longer reflect the original character, the Park Service would de-list the district.

Hearn wondered if the 2500 square foot maximum would be regardless of lot size? Kramer affirmed. In his experience in working in other cities, people have told him to keep it simple. The square footage should resemble what is there.

Leighton sees that each area in the city would have a different norm. Kramer suggested 2500 square feet or 110 percent of the average of the adjoining houses, whichever is less.

Fields said the most compelling argument Kramer makes is that this is a way to keep down the price of lots by controlling the scale of house that can be built. That in itself is a major character change. He finds it ironic the situation that Ashland is in. What saved Ashlandís Historic District is probably poverty. They didnít get torn down because no one could afford to tear them down to build apartments so they were safe. Then through careful planning, promoting, and times changing, and a demographic shift where people have amassed wealth, picking anywhere they want to live, this looks pretty darned good. Ashlandís success is affecting the livable demographic such as young people being able to live here and have families. The whole thing is feeding and driving the value of properties so high. It is being seen as an investment vehicle because the historic district and the preserved character during this upwardly spiraling unlivability. It is happening in small towns all around the country.

Kramer mentioned an article coming out in the next issue of Preservation Magazine with Ashland as the cover story. The tone of the article is "Is the price of popularity too high?"

Hartzell is hoping this body would think through whether this is a problem and what to do about it. She talked about common property. One of the things these old historic neighborhoods represent to us is our common heritage. How do we protect it? She hopes the Planning Commission will get a copy of the Needs Assessment and will look at the trends. The cost per square foot is going up exponentially. The size of lots is going up.

Hearn said he wants to take off looking at citywide maximum lot size, and move ahead with the Historic District regulating more carefully. That leaves people with options. For families with large families, they could move to another area of town.

Laws agreed with Hearn. He would like to see this brought to the Council with some specific alternatives on how to do something along the line of what Kramer has suggested. The Council can then decide whether or not it is politically viable or not.

Kramer said there are 1400 dwellings in the three residential historic districts. Mac said there are 9,000 dwellings in Ashland.

Kistler said he can certainly see the issue in the Historic District. He said the majority of the Historic District has the R-2 overlay zone which allows townhomes. When he sees a townhome project, the impact that would have would be a lot greater than a house that is 3000 square feet. How does the massing of those buildings play into it? What do you do with multi-family complexes in these districts?

Steele suggested a small but skilled subgroup be appointed to bring one or two alternate proposals to the Historic Commission and the Planning Commission. McLaughlin agreed. What he is looking for at this point is agreement from the larger body that they want to move ahead on setting maximum house size limits. We can talk about the technical parts of making that happen after. He disagrees with Kramerís 2500 square foot limit. But that is a different discussion. McLaughlin said the approach taken by most communities is limiting the floor area of a structure.

Chapman is struggling with whether or not there is really a problem. He doesnít want to discount the work the Historic Commission seems to do on a daily basis. It seems the Historic Commission takes care of this. Chambers feels increasing pressure. They will not stop working either. They would like one additional tool to help guide. There is a resource Ashland values.

Skibby feels it would be a vote of "no confidence" if they drop it.

McLaughlin proposed the bodies vote on whether to move forward to study adopting maximum size limits in the three residential Historic Districts. Steele understands the vote would be on whether or not some proposal needs to be brought forth by an expert group to at least attempt to solve the problem. Not what the solution is, but is there a need for a solution. McLaughlin said the vote is whether to pursue adoption of house size limits in the Historic District. Everyone voted in favor except DeBoer, Gardiner and Chapman.

McLaughlin showed some tools to use and approaches (Power Point presentation).

ADJOURNMENT - The meeting was adjourned at 9:00 p.m.


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