Rogue Advocates proposes farmland mitigation program

Rogue Advocates is proposing that developers who build on high-quality farmland should be required to buy the development rights on other farmland, permanently protecting that land from development.

Jimmy MacLeod, executive director for Rogue Advocates, based in Ashland and Williams, acknowledged it would increase the cost of homes built on farmland.

But it would be a way of putting a cost on the destruction of farmland and damage done to the local agricultural industry, he said.

"All these years, no one has had to pay anything for that," MacLeod said.

The proposal comes as the Jackson County Board of Commissioners prepare for hearings in September about where development should occur to accommodate a projected doubling of the Rogue Valley population over the next 50 years.

The Home Builders Association of Jackson County did not return phone calls for comment on how a farmland mitigation program could affect development and home construction.

MacLeod said the Rogue Valley needs a critical mass of acres devoted to agriculture. When farmland and orchards are lost, that creates a ripple effect of closing agricultural supply stores and other related businesses. Eventually, agriculture loses its viability in an area, he said.

Rogue Advocates developed the farmland mitigation proposal in concert with farmers, farm advocates and other residents. The proposal is modeled after programs in counties in California, Colorado and Vermont.

The proposal's supporters came together because of growing concern that a Regional Problem Solving Plan now under development has earmarked 7,000 acres of farmland in Jackson County for urbanization. Of that, 1,200 acres are high-value farmland, meaning that it typically is irrigated and has the best soils, according to Rogue Advocates.

Nancy Vaughn, who raises hay, cattle and fruit outside Jacksonville, said the plan focuses too much on cities' projected growth needs.

"We also need to focus on what the needs are for maintaining a strong agricultural economy and the future food needs for our growing cities," Vaughn said. "The Rogue Advocates' farmland mitigation program could be a step in the right direction. It's worth the county taking a look and giving it some consideration."

She said a farmland mitigation program could help preserve the valley's agricultural base and its better farmlands.

On Aug. 16, the Ashland City Council voted to ask Jackson County commissioners to reduce the amount of high-quality farmland included in the Regional Problem Solving Plan's urban reserves for cities — land earmarked for growth once the cities expand past their urban growth boundaries.

Unlike most other cities in the county, Ashland decided not to designate urban reserves.

If the amount of high-quality farmland in urban reserves isn't reduced in the valley, the Ashland City Council said it supports the farmland mitigation proposal.

Rogue Advocates' proposal would require that whenever farmland in an urban reserve is annexed into a city for development, the developer would pay a willing landowner for a conservation easement on farmland outside the reserve. Alternately, the county could administer the mitigation program and developers would pay fees for the county to set up conservation easements.

Among other comments, the Ashland City Council has also asked that the Regional Problem Solving Plan promote dense development, mass transit and a variety of housing types.

Jackson County commissioners will hold a public hearing on the Regional Problem Solving Plan at noon Sept. 7 in the Jackson County Offices Auditorium, 10 S. Oakdale Ave., Medford.

Additional public hearings are scheduled tentatively at noon on Sept. 14, 21 and 28 and Oct. 5, 12, 19 and 26.

Staff reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com.

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