Bowing to pressure from cities, a divided Jackson County Board of Commissioners approved Wednesday a scaled-down version of a controversial new rural zoning.

Bowing to pressure from cities, a divided Jackson County Board of Commissioners approved Wednesday a scaled-down version of a controversial new rural zoning.

Commissioners C.W. Smith and Dave Gilmour supported a rural use zoning that would allow a minimum 20-acre lot size if the landowner can prove the property had been zoned incorrectly.

The 20-acre minimum is supported by the cities of Ashland, Medford and Talent and is also recommended by the county Planning Commission and planning staff. Cities opposed the smaller size because they feared it would encourage development on the outskirts of towns, taxing city services without helping pay for them.

A 10-acre minimum version approved by commissioners in 2006 got shot down by Oregon Land Use Board of Appeals and the Oregon Court of Appeals after an appeal was filed by the city of Ashland, which maintained the county hadn't adequately involved the cities in the process.

Smith, who originally voted for the 10-acre minimum, said he changed his mind in an effort to at least get some form of the rural use zoning on the books.

"I'm a pragmatic kind of person and I'd like to see forward motion," he said. "I don't want to see any more appeals. A half loaf is better than none."

Commissioner Jack Walker, who said he has spent seven years championing the new zoning, said he didn't understand why the 10-acre minimum idea was dropped.

Walker wants the zoning to allow some limited development on properties that were incorrectly zoned by Oregon's land-use laws.

He said the appeal was based on a procedural error on the part of the county, not on the acreage size.

"I don't know why it was even eliminated," he said. "It should still be allowed. It makes sense to do so."

Smith told Walker that the county has gone through an arduous process, and the 10-acre minimum would likely lead to more challenges.

He said there is too much support for the 20-acre minimum to try and change it at this point. "I don't want all or nothing," he said.

Smith said he could foresee looking at some limited 10-acre parcels in some areas of the county, but only after enough time has passed to see how the new rural use zoning works.

Brent Thompson, president of Friends of Jackson County, said his organization supported the commissioners' decision. Thompson was a party in the original appeal against the county.

Although 20-acres is the minimum lot size, the county's new zoning would allow larger parcels of 30 or 40 acres. It would also allow developments of 15-acre minimums if they were clustered on a property to minimize road building and help preserve open space.

The county is preparing a user's guide for rural residents about the new zoning. A landowner can change the zoning if a property zoned exclusive farm use has a soils analysis that shows that land is unsuitable for agriculture. Similarly, land zoned forest resource could be changed if the landowner can prove there isn't enough viable timber.

Under the new zoning, if the owners of a 100-acre parcel zoned exclusive farm use could prove 51 of the acres don't have suitable soil for agriculture, then the entire property could be rezoned for development under rural use zoning, according to a report prepared by county planning staff.

Cities in Jackson County became alarmed at the new rural use zoning because they feared increased traffic from the new development and the potential to place additional pressures on cities' emergency services.

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife told the county that it favored cluster developments in rural areas because it would have less impact on sensitive wildlife areas.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 776-4476 or dmann@mailtribune.com.