A trio of land-use watchdog organizations say a proposal to eventually add 8,500 acres around six Jackson County cities would gobble up too much farmland.

A trio of land-use watchdog organizations say a proposal to eventually add 8,500 acres around six Jackson County cities would gobble up too much farmland.

Sarah Vaile, an outreach coordinator for Rogue Advocates, 1000 Friends of Oregon and Friends of Jackson County, said the organizations want cities to push for higher densities to prevent sprawl into about 1,200 acres of high-value farm areas.

The cities — Medford, Ashland, Phoenix, Talent, Central Point and Eagle Point — are in the midst of public hearings to conclude a 10-year effort to create a blueprint for growth over the next 50 years, when the population of the area is expected to double.

Almost 40 meetings, including public hearings, will be held by the cities and Jackson County through August.

The Regional Problem Solving process is the only one of its kind to have survived in the state; similar efforts elsewhere have failed because participants could not reach an agreement. Jacksonville earlier dropped out of the local process, citing areas of disagreement.

If the remaining cities and Jackson County sign off on the plan by next spring, state approval could come by summer 2011, barring legal challenges.

Ashland will hold a public hearing at 7 p.m. Tuesday, June 1, in the council chambers, 1175 E. Main St.

The Medford City Council will hold a public hearing at 7 p.m. Thursday, June 3, at City Hall in the council chambers, 411 W. Eighth St. For a complete list of all meetings and hearings, go to http://www.mailtribune.com/rpsmeetings.

Vaile said cities should create higher densities within existing limits, rather than growing into farmland.

According to U.S. Census Bureau statistics, the county generated $79 million in direct sales from agriculture in 2007, a 46 percent increase from 2002, Vaile said.

Cities can achieve greater populations within existing boundaries, Vaile said, citing Ashland as the local example.

She said Ashland has decided to grow within its existing boundaries rather than add acreage, while Medford seeks to add 4,000 acres. In addition, the city proposes to add 1,877 acres in municipal parkland, by including Prescott and Chrissy parks, city-owned parks on Roxy Ann Peak.

Despite their misgivings, Vaile said the organizations she represents generally support the concept of regional problem solving.

Michael Cavallaro, executive director of the Rogue Valley Council of Governments, said 80 percent of the land around cities is zoned for exclusive farm use.

"It is impossible to expand our cities into anything else other than EFU land," he said. "There are not a lot of alternatives."

Cavallaro said that as the area grows he expects densities to increase, achieving some of the goals raised by the land-use watchdog organizations.

Cavallaro said some communities have a density of about five-and-a-half housing units per acre, but the goal will be to achieve six or greater. Vaile's organizations would like the cities to hit a target of seven or more.

A higher density would also lead to a more robust mass transit system for the area, according to the Rogue Valley Transportation District.

Cavallaro said the actual densities in many cities will likely exceed seven units an acre if land taken up by parks, roads and schools is not included.

He said cities are already recognizing they will need greater densities because it puts less of a burden to extend road systems and other improvements and sets the stage for more widely available mass transit.

During the past 10 years, cities have come to recognize the importance of greater densities, which Cavallaro said is one of the achievements of the regional process.

"There is not a lot of focus on what's been gained," he said. "This region has changed its course and is moving in another direction."

Cavallaro said the focus previously had been on the growth of the cities, not how farmland will be preserved and potentially thrive.

He said if the regional plan is adopted, farmers will know with greater certainty whether their land is going to be included within a city.

Farms that won't be included could start making an investment to expand their agricultural efforts, which could further stimulate the growing farm-to-market push in Jackson County.

Cavallaro said city leaders recognize the importance of a thriving farm community as an important part of the local economy.

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