Excluding Jacksonville from a nine-year effort to expand the boundaries of local cities is a fatal legal error, warns a land-use watchdog group.

Excluding Jacksonville from a nine-year effort to expand the boundaries of local cities is a fatal legal error, warns a land-use watchdog group.

"Based on the case law, it is a deal-killer," said Greg Holmes of 1000 Friends of Oregon.

Holmes said that without Jacksonville, the Regional Problem Solving process no longer exists. The plan would add 8,800 acres to the urban reserves of cities to allow for a potential doubling of the population. Local cities are trying to plan for growth over the next 50 years and want to add just under 30 percent to the 30,000 acres within their boundaries.

Based on previous court rulings, Holmes said, he doesn't think Jacksonville can be excluded from the regional effort.

Jacksonville was dropped from the RPS process after city officials disagreed with the regional effort and balked at signing a procedural agreement before all public hearings were concluded.

As 1000 Friends considers an appeal, local cities and the counties are working to amass a legal-defense fund of at least $100,000 during the final phases of the complicated RPS process.

The stakes are high for local cities that want to expand their boundaries, which would involve taking in about 1,200 acres of high-quality farmland. Because of the complexities of state laws, the regional process provides more latitude in using agricultural land for future development.

Jackson County has anticipated an appeal and has requested that contributions from cities, private landowners and $20,000 from a transportation planning fund be used to create the legal- defense fund.

County Commissioner Dave Gilmour said the county wanted to make sure in advance that cities share in the possible legal expense before the county embarks on a lengthy process to change its comprehensive plan.

"The county didn't want to take it on the chin and accept all the expenses," said Gilmour.

He disputed Holmes interpretation of a previous Oregon Court of Appeals ruling in 2005 over a similar regional process in Polk and Yamhill counties.

The court ruled that when Yamhill pulled out, the collaborative effort that is supposed to be part of the RPS process ended.

Gilmour said that if Jackson County or a major city such as Medford withdrew from the regional process it would probably end it, but not with Jacksonville alone.

Gilmour said the county would spend up to $250,000 to change its comprehensive plan to align it with the regional planning effort.

But if the legal fund dries up and none of the parties wants to contribute more for legal fees, the county would stop working on a comprehensive plan and the regional process could stop.

"The county is not willing to run up a bill of $500,000 or 1 million bucks," said Gilmour.

Rob Hallyburton, planning services division manager for the Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development, said his agency did advise Jackson County officials to move forward with the process despite Jacksonville's departure.

"We felt the region would be in a defensible legal position," he said.

Hallyburton said his agency also thought the Court of Appeals case was different from Jackson County's situation. Jacksonville's relative size in the regional effort did play a part in the agency's recommendation, he said.

Holmes, however, said similar arguments were made before the Court of Appeals that a party could be excluded from the regional effort without it failing. Ultimately, he said the court ruled otherwise.

Holmes said Jacksonville was an integral part of the process because it had been involved for nine years. Instead of working to reach a consensus, he said, the RPS group tried to find a way to get rid of the city.

"They've come up with a theory that they're hoping is different from other cases that have fallen apart," he said.

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