GOLD HILL — Trouncing a similar proposal a decade ago, local residents pushed back again against requiring riparian setbacks along the Rogue River, even though planners this time offered a carrot: allowing existing uses to remain.
The City Council is determining the feasibility of a 75-foot setback rule dictating uses and development because riparian setbacks are required by the county and state should the city seek to expand its boundaries.
Council members discussed the setback last week with property owners who voiced concerns over limiting property access and what would happen to existing, non-conforming structures.
Rogue Valley Council of Governments planner Dick Converse told audience members he drafted a proposal that was “not entirely similar” to one proposed in 2008 and mirroring a similar ordinance adopted by Shady Cove.
Converse said the biggest change in the more recent proposal was that existing uses could be “grandfathered in.”
“The main adjustment from last time is acknowledgment there is already activity that has occurred in the riparian zone so, rather than have people convert that, allowing it to remain,” Converse said.
“If you’ve got lawns and landscaping, that can remain. We tried to be a little more clear this time to ensure, for residents, that pre-existing development can remain.”
Councilor Zachariah Dell, who asked that a setback rule be placed on the council agenda, said the city needs to grow and that county and state land-use laws require cities to adopt rules geared at protecting natural resources.
“My main push for the riparian way is that Gold Hill needs to expand to get the money necessary for its infrastructures or otherwise you’ll see lots of failures in its infrastructures over the next 10 years — those boil water notices are going to be a lot more regular,” Dell said.
Converse told audience members that riparian setbacks could range from 25 to 200 feet, prompting some audience members to ask for a smaller setback than the 75 feet proposed.
Kellogg Street resident Pat McNeilly was relieved that pre-existing uses could be permitted but was opposed to “city and state, or some bureaucrat, telling me what I can and can’t do on my property.”
McNeilly said, “I’ll protect the fish in good conscience, but I don’t want a law telling me.”
Bill Pierce, who lives on Estremado Street, said the proposal felt like a violation of rights and worried it would be like floodplain mapping, in which he said the city inaccurately listed part of his property inside a floodplain when it was not.
“This riparian thing just seems like a taking of our property and a taking of our rights. I don’t know how, it this thing starts going through, how the city can afford all the extra costs that are going to come down on them to take care of some of these vacant properties,” Pierce said.
Property owner Lynda Murata said restrictions to river access was unfair for riverfront property owners who already pay higher taxes.
“The average lot is 50-by-100 feet, and you’re going to take 75 feet, which is three-quarters of the average size lot?” Murata said.
“I think that, if they do impose this, that they definitely should adjust our taxes. I don’t know how six people can determine all these people’s rights. I’d like to know how many of you folks live on the river.”
Mark Baird, a local property appraiser, reiterated his concerns from 2008 and scoffed at the notion the city should try to expand before addressing infrastructure improvements.
“The city has weak infrastructure and can’t grow until we deal with that. Annexation to bring more people into the city right now is not feasible,” said Baird.
Councilwoman Deb West said she felt a water surface management plan, adopted in 2013, was sufficient to protect the river and satisfy state and county planners should expansion be sought.
“We had already created a surface water management plan in 2013 and we do things so that, when we have rain, we have enough space between streets and alleys that it seeps into the ground before it runs into the river and we keep our storm drains clear,” West said.
“This particular plan is a way to kind of protect the riparian areas of Gold Hill without going to the extreme of impacting rights of property owners. I think we should continue the surface water management program instead of the riparian ordinance. I’m kind of wanting a less heavy-handed approach.”
Dell said he didn’t want to overly impact property owners, either, and his request to discuss the topic was to solicit feedback. Dell appreciated residents’ suggestions of smaller setback areas and other alternatives.
“I do not want to take or make land unusable for homeowners. That’s government overreach, yet that’s also 30 or so outraged people versus 1,170 other people suffering on a broken infrastructure,” he said.
“If Gold Hill expands, the population could be three to five times that, which could be the tax base needed, but where do you draw the line between doing what is required by the county and state — soon to be federal laws — out of the need to fund a failing infrastructure or not limiting what people are able to do on their own property?”
Council members plan a workshop with the community on the issue at 5 p.m. July 9.
Reach Medford freelance writer Buffy Pollock at email@example.com.