ASHLAND – Discussion of zoning regulations in the Highway 6 corridor lengthened the Ashland City Council meeting last Thursday.
The council held a public hearing on Ordinance 1166 to modify zoning in Ashland that lasted over an hour.
Zoning Administrator Lenora Isom explained that the ordinance cleans up some of the city’s zoning regulations, which are constantly changing with the goal to make things less complicated for property owners in Ashland.
“It’s always a work in progress,” she said.
Mayor Rick Grauerholz said the ordinance would help business owners planning to develop along the highways.
“What I’m seeing here is we’re making it easier,” he said.
The ordinance looks at the zoning districts that co-exist along Highway 6 in particular, Isom said. They are B1 (general business), B3 (highway business), I1 (light industrial) and flex, which was added to the zoning regulations in 2016. Flex is a transition space between business/commercial zoning and industrial zoning.
The new ordinance also looks more closely at some of the types of establishments permitted in the zoning regulations. For example, Isom said community centers and clubs are allowed in B1 now, something the ordinance changes.
“We just felt like that’s not really a good place for a community center,” she said.
One type of business that would be permitted in B3 drew some opposition from the audience.
Isom said self storage units were allowed in flex zoning, which requires a conditional use permit. The city council can revoke the conditional use permit as a way to ensure the business is meeting requirements.
However, if self storage is allowed in B3, as it would be under the revised zoning regulations, it would not require a conditional use permit.
Instead, it would be subject to the rules of the highway corridor overlay district, which the city instituted in 2016 along Highway 6 and Highway 66, Isom said.
The highway corridor overlay district has a detailed set of rules that are in addition to zoning regulations, Isom said. They give automatic strict requirements to the properties involved, and a certification of occupancy can be revoked if the conditions are not met through the life of the project.
“The highway overlay is more prescriptive and specific than anything we talk about in a conditional use hearing,” said Isom.
Although no official plans have been presented to the city, there is interest in building a self-storage unit on Highway 6 across from the Iron Horse development entrance, which would be allowed with the zoning changes. Members of the local business community spoke against self-storage units.
Karen Stille, a member of the Ashland Area Chamber of Commerce, said she and other business owners are concerned that the new zoning regulations will create an explosion of storage businesses along the highway in the next decade.
“Do we want to even open ourselves up to that as a possibility?” she asked the council.
Isom said history shows that communities tend to “self-diversify” when it comes to new businesses. She noted there are four properties along Highway 6 that are in the early stages of development, and they are all very different types of businesses.
“I only know of one doing (self-storage),” she said.
Council Member Bruce Wischmann agreed that the city needs a variety of businesses along the highway.
“I don’t necessarily want one type of establishment all the way down Highway 6,” he said.
But constitutionally, the city council can’t constrain development if the type of business is allowed in the city’s zoning regulations, according to City Attorney Mark Fahleson.
“We can’t restrict zoning out of fear of what would happen,” added Isom.
Stille said there are storage units already existing in Ashland. Isom said more self-storage would help residents who are not allowed to store boats, recreation vehicles and unlicensed vehicles outdoors.
Enforcement of the highway overlay district would be used to keep all businesses in line, including self-storage, Isom said. Lee Sapp, owner of Lee Sapp Ford, said enforcement would be difficult.
“Every place I’ve ever lived, rules have gotten broken by somebody,” he said.
Fahleson said the city can take a property owner to court if they do not meet zoning regulations.
“The city is the authority, and on multiple occasions has sued to bring (a property owner) into compliance,” he said.
Susan Cerny, a member of the Ashland Planning Commission, said the new businesses planned along the highway, including the self-storage units, will greatly improve the area.
“We are definitely going to have something better than the way it stands now,” she said.
Cerny and Isom also noted that the presence of large water lines along Highway 6 make development there tricky because structures cannot be built on top. Grauerholz also reminded the council that the nearby railroad tracks and highway create a lot of noise, another deterrent to developing the area.
Because of these limitations, self-storage is one of the few viable development options in parts of the area, Isom said.
“The more I understand how difficult it is to build on these properties, that’s about all they can do on it,” she said.
Stille also requested that the city work with the Ashland Area Economic Development Corporation to create a vision for Highway 6.
“It seems to me a good marriage of entities,” she said.
Isom said the zoning changes in this ordinance aren’t about one particular project, like the self-storage units.
Instead, the changes are about being fair to other businesses in the area, because businesses will have to have designs that are comparable to their neighbors under the highway corridor overlay district’s rules, she said.
“There’s nothing nefarious here,” she added. “It’s about equity.”
Isom also said city leaders are aware that Gretna’s zoning boundaries will be one mile closer to Ashland when the growing community becomes a city of the first class and has a two-mile zoning jurisdiction.
“We’re trying to be competitive with our neighbor,” she said.
After the public hearing, the council voted to approve the second reading of the ordinance. It will not be official until the third reading passes.
Council Member Paul Gossin said he made the motion to approve to enable the council to be further down the path for those people who are developing the area.
“It is appropriate for us to move forward,” he said.
However, Gossin is not closing down the conversation.
“I still invite input from people regarding this,” he said.