Regional planning initiative approved by county

After 11 years of often spirited debate in countless meetings, the Jackson County Board of Commissioners unanimously has approved a Regional Problem Solving plan to guide urban growth for the next half-century.

After a three-hour session Wednesday afternoon, the commissioners voted to approve slightly more than 8,500 acres of urban growth reserves in the county, roughly half of which includes parcels on the edges of Medford, the county's largest community.

With the vote, Jackson County becomes the first of any county in the state to sign off on an RPS plan.

Other counties working on long-range urban growth plans have thus far been unable to come to an agreement, thanks to the challenges in getting local governments to iron out potential wrinkles.

In addition to Medford, cities involved in the local RPS process to establish land reserves for future urban growth include Eagle Point, Central Point, Ashland, Phoenix and Talent.

Ashland is the only city that won't add acreage, with city officials there saying they prefer to increase density. Jacksonville opted out of the process several years ago.

The Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development, which has warned cities not to include too much land, will now review the county's RPS plan.

The state asked counties more than a decade ago to set the urban reserves to prepare for the next half-century's growth.

In Jackson County, the population is expected to double by 2060.

"We have created a template for the future," declared board chairman C.W. Smith after the plan was approved.

Commissioners Don Skundrick and John Rachor also expressed relief at completing the epic process.

During Wednesday's session, Skundrick stressed that the plan had to be defensible.

"There are some people who are not going to get what they want in this process," he said before the vote. "I'm struggling with that," he added.

"I'm a property rights advocate," Rachor observed later in the discussion. "I don't want to hamstring them. But we don't want to ruin the viability of the plan, either."

No public comments were taken during Wednesday's meeting, which focused on the land around Medford's outskirts. Public testimony ended earlier this month after some 18 months of hearings around the county.

County land-use planner Josh LeBombard guided the board through the maze of maps and options on Wednesday. Roughly 7,000 acres of recommended RPS acreage is considered farmland, although much of it is marginal. About 1,200 acres has been described as high-quality farmland.

One of the biggest points of contention was a 493-acre tract of land off West Main Street immediately west of Oak Grove School. The Jackson County Planning Commission had voted 3-2 that Medford should include the land as part of its urban reserves, boosting its total acreage under the RPS plan to 4,805. But the Medford Planning Commission voted against it.

After considerable debate, the commissioners unanimously agreed to honor the wishes of the city as well as local property owners by not including the 493-acre parcel.

The commissioners also agreed to create an agricultural task force to study the impact of farmland being urbanized.

Following the vote, Greg Holmes, regional representative for 1,000 Friends of Oregon, said his group planned to study the plan before determining whether to give it its stamp of approval.

"There are a lot of innovative and forward-looking elements to this plan that we are fully in support of," he said. "But, overall, we have some misgivings about parts of it. We are going to have to look at the whole thing and the final language as it comes out.

"We will be studying it and participating at the state level when it goes there," he added.

However, the group supports the vast majority of the plan, said Holmes, who has been involved in the local planning effort for nine years.

"It is a relief to finally get to this point," he said. "It is time to move on to whatever is next."

Jimmy MacLeod, executive director of the land-use advocacy group Rogue Advocates, largely agreed but said he has some concerns.

"For instance, we feel the task force proposal should have been done throughout the RPS process," MacLeod said. "It should have been done at the beginning. This is the 11th hour. But it is better late than never."

The issue of where the doubled population will live was covered well, he said.

"We feel the preservation of agriculture, one of their goals, played second fiddle in the process," he said.

"But, as we've said all along, we didn't get involved to throw the baby out with the bath water," he said. "We see the value of regional planning. One of the questions we've raised is, 'Is this regional planning or just a compilation of cities' wish lists for development?' We will be looking at it critically from that point of view."

After the meeting, Smith said he was glad to see the plan approved, warts and all.

"But I feel good this is finally completed — the first and only one in the state right now," he said. "It certainly is not a perfect baby but it is one the whole community helped put together.

"What this does is provides us a set of rules we can use to go forward without a lot of intrusion from the state," he said. "Right now, every single little issue can be appealed. With a plan, we can move forward with a much smoother process for everybody."

He believes the RPS will provide an economic motivation for property owners involved.

"They can plan out their futures — there is no guesswork anymore," he said.

For more information on the RPS plan, including specific parcels, check out

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or e-mail

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