The fate of a sweeping commercial zoning change for Ashland’s downtown business corridor is now in the hands of Ashland Town Council.
Last week, following a third public hearing on the changes, the town planning commission voted 4-0, with Bob Flanagan abstaining, to forward proposed changes to Ashland’s B-1 commercial zoning ordinance to town council for consideration.
The pending amendments establish a historic downtown district, B-1D, define permitted business uses for B-1 and B-1D and apply new architectural and aesthetic guidelines to future development.
Although the town’s senior planner, Garet Prior, said 236 business and property owners were notified about the ordinance update, 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.
Nora Amos, director of planning and community development, said town staff had been working on the revision for about a year and that the change was driven by the most recent Comprehensive Plan update.
“The purpose is to clean up the ordinance and to make sure that what’s in the zoning code coordinates with what’s in the comprehensive plan,” Amos said.
The proposed downtown, B-1D district is meant to help the town compete with suburban shopping areas by creating an active shopping and entertainment district. Retail uses, then, would be consolidated on the first floor of street-facing buildings while office and residential uses – those not drawing foot traffic – would be allowed on the second floor or in spaces that don’t face the street.
The current B1-D district boundary follows Railroad Avenue north from the old Hanover Bank building south just past the municipal parking lot then continues along Railroad Avenue on the other side of the tracks south to The Fin and Feather
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 and another seven uses that would be require a conditional use permit.
Under the current B1 ordinance, 22 uses are permitted by-right and another 25 require conditional use permits to operate. This would change under the overall B1 amendment to allow 38 byright uses; only 11 others would require permits and the associated public hearings.
Uses that would no longer be allowed in B1 or B1-D 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.
Prior said the current ordinance was shaped by the input staff and the planning commission received over a series of work sessions and public hearings.
“Some of the input we’ve gained has led to direct amendments to where it’s at now going to town council,” Prior said.
While public input has helped shape the proposed ordinance, Amos said, “We’ve really had minimal input if you look at how many people are impacted. We’ve had, basically, the same few coming and their questions are, ‘Are you making it harder for us to do business and rent out our property?’”
Amos said that those concerned individuals who staff has had the chance to discuss the changes with walked away feeling comfortable with the proposed amendments.
However, during the last public hearing, held May 14, a number of individuals still had their concerns.
Caroline Coronado, who owns a property on Robinson Street, presented the planning commission with a petition bearing 50 signatures of property or business owners opposed to the ordinance change.
“We believe that both the town staff and the planning commission have failed to demonstrate facts to support enactment of the B1-D zoning district on Railroad Avenue particularly since the existing B1 zoning district is sufficient and can be minimally modified to achieve the state goals of the comprehensive plan.”
Coronado said that citizens, business and property owners and other stakeholders have questioned the need for creating the B1-D district, adding that increased regulations on businesses will negatively impact economic development efforts.
Ann-Carol Houston, manager of the Henry Clay Inn, told planners she was opposed to the creation of the B1-D district as well as changes to the B1 ordinance. With the Inn up for sale, not knowing future, allowable uses was hurting the prospects of finding a new owner.
“The things I want from the town are not all this regulation and oversight, I think it should be left up to the businesses as long as no one’s hurting anybody,” she said.
“Less is more to me, I’m sorry, as far as government goes, the less we have the better off we are,” Houston added.
The ordinance change is expected to come before town council when they meet June 17.