Leaders put heads together

When Medford and Jackson County officials held a rare joint meeting Monday, the big issues were land-use problems and the need for teamwork on economic development.

The lunch get-together of City Council members and county commissioners at City Hall generated an array of goals. Commissioner C.W. Smith suggested a fast-track construction trade school and medical arts training as "an incubator of new jobs and expansion of what we've got."

References to job creation surfaced throughout the meeting, as did the need for creating a more inviting climate for business.

While cautioning that the county didn't want to assert control over cities, Commissioner Don Skundrick said the county is "uniquely placed to be a geographic umbrella for partnering with the cities ... and I don't care where (new) business locates."

Such umbrella economic development planning would include Southern Oregon Regional Economic Development Inc. and The Job Council, Skundrick added.

Southern Oregon officials are all on the same page with economic development, but Medford Mayor Gary Wheeler said, "we cross-pollinate a lot — Salem (state government) is more of our problem than down here."

In trying to attract new business, Wheeler noted "how negative Oregon was to business."

"You can pitch all you want about 'We're open for business,'" Wheeler said, "but Oregon has the reputation of being difficult to develop in."

Oregon's land-use laws came in for criticism from both sides.

"It's land use and right-to-work laws," said Bill Hoke, acting city manager. "If you don't meet their cost criteria, you're out and they're very cold about it. They say 'You guys got a problem with your image' and other things, but the land-use issue is killing us.'"

Smith agreed, saying it takes 18 months to get an exception to the land-use process and added, "You try to convince people our land use is what makes us great. It's not. It's unbelievable what we've done to ourselves."

Skundrick urged focus on creating a more skilled job force with high-tech training, noting he's puzzled by which comes first, "build the labor force or build the business."

His sons, said Skundrick, had to move east because of lack of business and job opportunities here.

Officials expressed support for House Bill 3615 from the 2010 Legislature, saying the bill must be revived in the February short session or next year. It would allow Jackson, Josephine and Douglas counties to redefine forest and exclusive farm use land for rural residential use — or even commercial use, if it's adjacent to existing commercial classification, said Medford Councilman Al Densmore.

Officials joked that they're tired of the old rule that "if it's flat, it's farm and if it's hilly, it's forest" applied in southwest Oregon.

Such a new regional land use planning effort has the "stumbling block," said Smith, that it would cost $600,000 and would need staff. It was opposed in the last Legislature by land-use planning advocates 1,000 Friends of Oregon and died in committee, despite support on both sides of the aisle.

"They (Friends) said it would destroy land-use planning in Oregon." said Smith. "It's got legs again. It doesn't mean wholesale development; it says you have the right to develop worthless land ... . Converting forest and farm land is not where we're at, at all."

Smith said the intent of allowing more regional control over land use was to enable conversion of exclusive farm use land to other uses only in cases where it's poor farmland, as in White City.

Medford Councilman Dick Gordon cautioned that shifting forest or farm land to industrial use could have a "negative effect" by taking needed revenues out of the city. He joked that he'd annex White City if it were possible, "because we need the tax base."

Smith said the county and other parties the commissioners have been talking to "have been doing a good job of identifying industrial sites and what we need are economic benefit impact statements."

Smith called the conclave a "cracker barrel session" which was also a public meeting, with public notice posted as required law.

The consensus of the two groups leaned toward holding semi-annual meetings of Medford and Jackson County officials, with liaison officers created on both sides and touching base with each other regularly.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

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