Ashland is a suburb that marches to a different beat. In fact, Ashland marches in distinct counterpoint to neighboring towns - where zoning laws limit growth, encourage a high-income population, and allow minimal industry and commerce.
The concept of no growth ''is a no-no!'' says Warren Green, chairman of the town's planning commission. ''Slow growth is important only to a no-think town. As a bedroom community, Ashland is a town not in a position to protect itself from a real estate spurt.''
Mr. Green is a maverick suburbanite who advocates change.
By attracting a ''good mix'' of residents - families of varying incomes, races, and ethnic groups - as well as some light industry and retail businesses, Ashland is able to develop ''a strong, stable tax base,'' he says. And four years ago, ''the town meeting went for my ideas.''
Today Ashland has ''cluster zoning'' (four units in one building per lot) and affordable garden apartments. ''We haven't had a tax hike in three years,'' Green says.
This policy has opened the town to young adults, he says. ''A young couple or single person couldn't afford a home in the single-family-zoned residential areas of town. The new developments are off the streets. (The first ones) are located on a farm that was called the Strawberry Patch. Trees still line the area. And the development doesn't look cluttered.''
''Ashland has the potential to expand,'' says planning commission colleague Robert DeSista. ''We permit development on smaller lot sizes.... We have a large parcel of land zoned multifamily, and this (parcel) can be doubled.''
Ashland is prepared to deal with the problems of extra sewerage and water use that come with expansion, says Mr. DeSista. He is also the town's representative to MetroWest, eight suburban communities west of Boston that are combining their resources to ensure orderly, planned development by 1990.
''We anticipate no problems with our future water and sewerage needs,'' DeSista says. ''Our basic concern is traffic.''
The highway serving Ashland is Route 126, which is overburdened already. Through MetroWest, DeSista is working to resolve the traffic congestion that is a major problem in all the MetroWest towns: Framingham, Natick, Southborough, Sudbury, Wayland, Wellesley, and Weston.
Ashland, with a population of 9,165, is one of MetroWest's smaller communities. According to the 1980 US Census Bureau, only 175 nonwhites live in the community.
But that figure appears to be changing.
''We're open to new ideas in Ashland,'' says DeSista. ''Others tell us we are opening up too many multifamily units. We say we're going to get as many as we can. We (also) have a substantial number of subsidized family-housing units.''
By 1990 Ashland intends to add 1,484 housing units to the existing housing stock - more than the other MetroWest members combined. In addition, Ashland plans 250,000 square feet of retail-commercial development, exceeded only by Framingham and Natick, and 200,000 square feet of light industrial expansion.
New construction is evident everywhere here, and Howard Fafard is the major developer. His firm is enlarging its shopping center and expanding its Ledgemere development, which includes cluster housing, multifamily units, and condominiums.
The Fafard Company is also building housing - 500 town houses, 30 single-family homes, and a cluster development.
''Cluster zoning helps us keep our prices lower,'' says wife Madlyn Fafard, the company spokeswoman. ''We can build more units on a smaller plot of land. Multifamily units are bread and butter to us. We build (the units) for mixed-income groups at prices they can pay.''
The company's commercial developments off Route 126 include an industrial park of seven buildings, an expansion of the Ledgemere Plaza shopping center, and a new Town Line Shopping Center with three supermarkets, two banks, and a number of retail shops - all scheduled to open this spring.
''We started out in 1980 building two-bedroom condos starting at $49,900,'' Mrs. Fafard says. ''On one morning we sold 90 units before noon. These now are resold at $90,000. Our new ones are as low as $55,900.''
The Fafard Company also is giving the city a vacant lot and will build a firehouse on it, Green says. ''Ashland supplies the equipment,'' he adds.
When he moved to Ashland 23 years ago, Green says, the town was more of a blue-collar community than a high-income suburb. ''I became a bit apprehensive about the town's future'' when it began to attract one type of family. ''You know the type - an acre of land to build one single-family home.''
In 1979, the town created a planning commission to organize a plan for Ashland's growth.
''This growth means more jobs in Ashland,'' Green says. ''This means economic progress.''