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Despite pandemic, construction flourishes

Despite pandemic, construction flourishes

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BOOMING BUILDING: A row of houses is under construction at Whitetail Estates in Ashland on Monday afternoon. There were 22 building permits for residential houses approved for the subdivision in 2020, helping Ashland set a record for the number of homes built in a year at 33. (Staff Photo by Anna Boggs)

ASHLAND – You wouldn’t know a worldwide pandemic is going on by looking at the rate of residential construction in Ashland.

A record number of new homes with a total value of almost $10 million were permitted in Ashland and within the one-mile zoning jurisdiction around the city while the world dealt with COVID-19, according to Building Inspector/Zoning Administrator Bill Krejci.

“It had no effect,” Krejci said. “Things haven’t slowed down at all.”

Permits for 33 new homes were approved by the Ashland City Council in 2020, three more than the year before. In 2018, there were 26 new homes.

Before 2017, Ashland’s residential growth experienced a see-saw effect, with 12 new homes in 2017, exactly half as much as the number in 2016. There were only 12 new residential building permits issued in 2015 and just 10 the year before.

The short burst of construction in 2016 was attributed to a strong real estate market and efforts to expand economic development in the community with the formation of the Ashland Area Economic Development Corporation.

The Whitetail Estates subdivision has helped Ashland reach record numbers in the past two years. Although the development is filling up quickly now, the subdivision had a slow start in the beginning.

The property for the subdivision was initially purchased in 2006 by Ashland Investment Company, a group of investors. The plan for 200 homes was approved by the city council two years later. But the recession in 2009 put a halt to work on the development. In 2010, the developers saw interest in homes on larger lots, so they platted five lots of this type on the property and built homes there.

Plans for Whitetail Estates slowed down again until 2017, when Ashland Investment Company requested tax increment financing (TIF) to help pay to bring infrastructure improvements (water, sewer, storm sewer, roads, etc.) to the area.

That year the city council approved the final plat for Phase 1, which included 50 homes that developers said would be in the $250,000 to $300,000 range.

The council also annexed nearly all of Whitetail Estates in anticipation of TIF approval, but the idea proved too controversial. After considerable public opposition voiced at public meetings and on social media for over a year, the developers and city council dropped TIF and opted to share the infrastructure costs.

Work on the infrastructure improvements began in fall 2018 and the first lot was sold a few months later. A dozen homes were built in 2019 and last year saw 22 go up.

Krejci said there are only about 14 lots left in the first phase and the city council is set to vote this week on the final plat for Phase 2, which will include 20 lots.

Brian Chaffin of Ashland Investment Company told the council last month that the housing market continues to be in good shape, which is why they decided to start on the second residential phase so soon.

“The first 50 went fast,” he told the council on Jan. 21. “We were pleased.”

The developers plan to begin construction on infrastructure in the spring. Krejci estimates they will start building homes in Phase 2 by autumn.

Another major subdivision in Ashland that is still under construction will be full very soon, Krejci predicted. The Sabre Heights development has only two vacant lots left.

“Everything else is built out,” Krejci added.

Sabre Heights began in 2001. Construction was steady in the first few years, but slowed considerably when the recession tanked the economy in 2008-2009. Things picked up as the housing market began a post-recession resurgence in the mid-2010s.

Sabre Heights was annexed by the city in late 2019. Before that, it was a Sanitary Improvement District (SID). An SID has the authority to issue bonds, levy taxes and special assessments and fix rates to pay for public infrastructure.

The Greystone Estates development along Highway 66 near the Cass County border is also filling up fast, Krejci said. Only two of the 10 lots are left for sale, he said.

Iron Horse is another large development within Ashland’s zoning jurisdiction that is also an SID. Original plans called for 250 lots in the development when it was planned in the late 1990s.

Infrastructure improvements began in 1999 and the first houses were built two years later. But the 9/11 terrorist attacks slowed construction considerably. And just as things were starting to pick up a few years later, the recession hit and the housing market collapsed. Construction dipped again in 2014, but has been on the upsurge since.

Ashland’s housing boom is poised to continue into 2021, as two new housing developments are taking shape, Krejci said. Both are located near the new pre-K-2 elementary school that is being built by Ashland-Greenwood Public Schools. Dirt work on the school site is set to begin this spring.

“These are two developments that are really kind of wrapping around the school,” said Krejci.

The first proposed subdivision is located west of the new school. It is a “planned unit development,” which allows a developer diverse use of the land, Krejci explained.

The developers have indicated there will be about 200 lots with a range of home sizes from larger homes on larger lots to townhomes. A commercial area is also planned.

“There are a lot of businesses that really benefit from being right next to a school,” added Krejci.

Another set of developers are looking at a parcel of land located north of the new school site. Krejci said there will be about 75 lots in this proposed subdivision. The plans are to build “starter homes,” he added, that will not have basements because of the flood plain.

Ashland saw two new commercial projects built or started in 2020. Blackstrap, Inc. built a 6,000-ton warehouse along Highway 6 at the previous site of Ashland Grain. Another big project was the renovation of the former Our Place bar in downtown Ashland into the Jones Insurance office. And restauranteur Brian Whitehead is building an addition to his downtown eatery, BW’s Pub and Grill, that will be used to expand the kitchen area and for storage.

Plans are also underway for two commercial renovations in 2021, both in the downtown area. Farmers and Merchants Bank of Ashland is planning an expansion to add office space, according to Matt Krause of Carlson West Povondra Architects, who presented plans to the city council on Jan. 21.

The second floor of the bank’s current building has been apartments for several years, but will convert back to commercial space with the renovation. The former Jones Insurance office will also be used to provide more office space for the bank.

The project will also redo all the electrical and mechanical systems in the entire building and add a full fire suppression system. The council approved a special use permit for the project.

A special use project was also approved in January for a complete remodel of the former Reliable Plumbing building by new owners Ashley and Nolan Welch, who own a downtown retail store (Salt Creek Mercantile) and custom furniture-making workshop and renovate houses. The Welches have not revealed what the building will be when the project is finished.

Another big improvement to the city’s neighborhoods in 2020 came in the form of new or repaired sidewalks. The city embarked on a sidewalk inspection and repair program in response to a complaint from a local citizen to the Federal Highway Administration about the condition of sidewalks in Ashland.

The sidewalk program divided the city into five sections. Work is being done in a phased timeline that started in 2020 and will move forward in three-year increments. The final phase is expected to be completed in 2034.

The first section includes the area between Furnas and Birch streets and 12th and 18th streets, including Silver Street between Highway 6 and 12th Street. Work began last summer and is scheduled to be done by 2022.

Krejci said 71 permits for sidewalk replacement or repair were approved in 2020 because of the program.

“We actually had a pretty good turnout,” he said.

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