A proposal to overhaul Ashland’s zoning ordinance for downtown businesses is back on the shelf until at least August.
Tuesday night, after hearing from a number of concerned citizens, business and property owners, Ashland Town Council deferred a rewrite of the town’s B-1 zoning ordinance, which also creates a separate zoning category (B-1D) for the businesses lining Railroad Avenue in the heart of town.
The 4-1 vote to defer the ordinance came after an unsuccessful bid from Councilman Steven Trivett to vote it down. Trivett’s motion to do so failed after not receiving any other support from council, meaning it never actually came to a formal vote, though it did receive an outburst of applause from the crowd gathered at town hall.
“The goal of having a prosperous, lively downtown, with every door along the tracks open as retail is a great goal, a perfect goal, perhaps. But I’d say that what we already have downtown is very good and at risk of this attempt at perfection,” Trivett said.
He added that voting in favor of the ordinance would negatively impact Ashland’s reputation as a business-friendly community.
“If we place a handcuff on businesses, their potential for success is limited. That applies for our current businesses as well as potential businesses,” he said.
Conceding that the ordinance still needed work, Mayor George Spagna said that it’s still important to have a vision for downtown Ashland.
“The surest path to the failure of a downtown business district is to have no vision of what that downtown business district is supposed to be,” Spagna said. “Failure to plan is planning to fail.”
He added that the B-1 overhaul was an attempt to convert the vision of the town’s comprehensive plan into something tangible.
“Are we there yet? No,” he said.
The public hearing on the ordinance was held in June; however, Spagna allowed citizens to weigh in.
Mary Garner-Mitchell, a nine-year business owner in Ashland who maintains office space in the iconic Hanover Bank building on Railroad Avenue, was the first of many to speak against the ordinance change.
“I’m troubled by the notion that non-retail business is somehow perceived as second-tier and relegated to back entrances and second floors,” she said. “I dare say that many of us non-retail, office folks are some of the most loyal customers of the downtown retailers.”
“Any ordinance that generally restricts property owners’ options for occupancy to a single category, namely retail, seems counter to a diverse and healthy business economy in any town, particularly to one of our size and particularly in today’s retail climate,” Garner-Mitchell added.
Town staff says the ordinance is aimed at helping the town compete regionally by making downtown Ashland a destination spot for retail shopping, arts and culture.
Approximately 236 business or property owners were notified of the change, but no existing businesses will be forced to conform with the new regulations if and when they take effect; properties would have to comply with the regulations if a business is vacant in excess of two years, if the use changes, or if a business wants to expand its footprint in a way that would trigger them to submit a site plan to the town.
Commercial uses allowed downtown would also change going forward. Uses that would no longer be allowed in B-1 or B-1D areas include assisted living facilities, automobile repair stations and dealers, family care homes, group homes or foster homes, funeral homes, firework sales, mini-storage facilities, townhomes and multifamily dwellings. There are also a total of nine “enhanced regulations” that would apply to the new B1-D designation.
The ordinance also favors retail use over office uses in the B-1D district; as proposed, office space would not be allowed in first-floor, street-facing units but could operate on a second floor, for example.
Overall, a total of 44 uses would be allowed in the B-1D district, 21 by-right, 16 on the second floor of a non-street-facing unit – those uses that don’t attract much foot traffic – and another seven uses that would require a conditional use permit.
Under the current B-1 ordinance, 22 uses are permitted by-right and another 25 require conditional use permits to operate. This would change under the overall B-1 amendment to allow 38 byright uses; 11 others would require permits and the associated public hearings.
Leading up to Tuesday’s meeting, staff had recommended deferral to allow further time to review the uses permitted under B-1D
Nora Amos, director of community development and planning, told council that the main concern staff has heard from stakeholders revolves around a limitation of uses in the B-1D district, particularly with offices, educational facilities and repair services.
In response to those concerns, Amos told council the town could potentially define real estate as a separate use from offices, allow conditional use permits for office space, and permit uses like educational facilities or banks on the first floor of downtown buildings, space the ordinance change was steering toward retail uses.
Town council will take the ordinance change back up Aug. 19 and planned to hold a separate work session on the issue before it comes back for action.