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Land group challenges county over 10-acre rule

A land-use watchdog group has charged that Jackson County is attempting an end run around its own zoning laws that could clear the way for sprawl in rural areas.

Rogue Advocates last week filed a 36-page challenge with the Oregon Land Use Board of Appeals over a decision by the county to allow division of a 340-acre property near Johns Peak into 10-acre parcels.

"Our issue is that it generates sprawl," said Jimmy MacLeod, spokesman for the nonprofit group.

MacLeod said the county essentially sidestepped a more rigorous state process that is normally required for these types of zoning changes, an argument disputed by county officials.

The property owner, Edward Cox, has been attempting to develop the land near Jacksonville for years, including filing a claim under the failed property rights initiative known as Measure 37. He then applied for a zoning change from forest to rural use, a new county zoning designation that allows a 20-acre minimum if it can be proved the original zoning was incorrect.

However, Cox has since decided to ask Jackson County to change the property from forest to another zoning category known as rural residential, which would allow it to be divided into 10-acre lots. Cox presented arguments why the property should not be classified as forestlands, and the county approved the request.

Kelly Madding, the county's Development Services director, said the county disagrees with Rogue Advocates' position, citing recent legal actions that have come down in favor of counties that changed the zoning, if warranted.

She said the county's intention is not to encourage sprawl, but to look at each land-use application on an individual basis. If the owner presents arguments showing why a property shouldn't be considered forestland, Madding said the county will determine whether the arguments are valid. Madding said the county's position is that the rural use and rural residential zoning are two different issues. She said she has no way of determining whether the county's action would encourage sprawl as members of Rogue Advocates have maintained.

"I don't know the answer to their question," she said.

However, she said that in the past it has been difficult for many property owners to make the case that their properties aren't zoned appropriately.

The county created the rural use zoning in 2006 after planning officials and county commissioners agreed that a 20-acre minimum lot size was the most appropriate in rural settings because it would be less disruptive to wildlife and wouldn't strain police and fire services in nearby communities.

When the rural use zoning was first approved, commissioners adopted a 10-acre minimum, but the Oregon Court of Appeals upheld a challenge to that minimum by local cities. After much debate, commissioners finally adopted the 20-acre minimum.

Now, the county is permitting 10-acre minimum lot sizes on Cox's property, which runs counter to the logic of the rural use zoning, MacLeod said.

"Effectively, it nullifies rural use," he said.

Cox's Medford attorney, Mark Bartholomew, said the county's approval and the county commissioners' interpretation are correct in determining the property should have the rural residential zoning.

Bartholomew said his client provided ample evidence why the property wasn't zoned correctly.

"The record is loaded with evidence why this is not good timberland," he said.

MacLeod said that if the rural-use zoning weren't on the books in this county, Rogue Advocates would not have been able to file its appeal. He said other counties that allowed a zoning change on forest or agricultural lands do not have a zoning designation like rural use.

MacLeod said that if the organization loses its case with LUBA, it will likely not appeal.

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