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Fight to protect farm and forest lands turns 30

In the 1970s through the early 1990s, many Jackson County rural landowners requested rezoning of agriculturally zoned land that had what they called “poor soils.” A number of property owners argued that since pears, our main crop at the time, could not be easily grown on certain lands, those lands were not good for growing anything and therefore should be rezoned for housing or other uses.

The Jackson County Planning Department and county commissioners unfortunately agreed, and in one year, from July 1, 1990 through June 30, 1991, Jackson County granted 432 permits for houses on agricultural and forest lands, often in violation of county ordinances and state laws. If approvals continued at that pace, it would have meant 4,320 more rural homes in 10 years, 8,640 more rural homes in 20 years, and 12,960 more in 30 years, usually compromising agricultural or forestry activities on site or around them.

The systems development charges assessed were too low for that growth and development to pay for itself because eventual costs for the county were greater than amounts received. Thus, this illegal rural growth cost Jackson County taxpayers money. And more rural residents always means more rural complainers regarding farm and forestry practices and activities.

Thus, additional rural residents and rural complainers were further compromising the agricultural economics of Jackson County. And already much prime farm land had been lost by the sprawl of cities in Jackson County, principally Medford.

Sprawl can be defined as the continual use of more land than necessary to accomplish development goals. Medford’s land-use practices epitomized this definition. Through a development pattern where consequences were not considered, by the 1960s much of the best farm land in the valley was already covered with single-story housing on large lots; shopping areas with parking for maximum possible need not normal need; and single-use development where commercial uses were located far from housing, making automobile trips the only practical way of accessing what people needed. This wasteful development pattern came to be recognized nationally as a danger to several things: agriculture and forestry, the retention of a sense of community, resource conservation, and fiscal responsibility in providing municipal services.

Officials at the state Department of Land Conservation and Development knew of the violations in Jackson County, but felt politically “un-empowered” to end the practice. The land-use watchdog group 1,000 Friends of Oregon also knew of the violations, but would not act unless a citizens group requested their involvement.

Fortunately for residents of Jackson County, a citizens group formed in summer 1991 called the Jackson County Citizens League, and with the assistance of Robert Liberty and Mary Kyle McCurdy and others from 1,000 Friends of Oregon, that group sued Jackson County in 1992 for 23 violations of state and local land-use laws.

JCCL was sustained on 11 allegations, and the state hearings officer enacted an enforcement order against Jackson County, meaning that for the next six years, Jackson County planning actions were monitored for compliance with state and local land-use laws.

An additional benefit statewide was that one county planning director attending a hearing was overheard telling a colleague that he did not always agree with the land-use laws enforced by the Land Conservation and Development Commission, but he was not going to risk an enforcement order by violating those laws.

Thus, in Jackson County many acres of “worthless land” were saved from development, and much of that is now planted in vineyards or other crops, not pears, thus greatly adding to the agricultural economy of Jackson County. And because of the enforcement order against Jackson County, the potential for violations in other counties decreased.

Today, the watchdog group trying to ensure compliance with state and local laws in Jackson County is called Rogue Advocates. The idea of watchdog groups such as 1,000 Friends of Oregon and local groups was conceived by Republican Gov. Tom McCall to attempt to guarantee compliance with Senate Bill 100, which is the legal framework for preserving Oregon’s resource lands, open space and wildlife habitat .

However, not yet accomplished is the state and county holding cities such as Medford to minimum density standards before land can be annexed or added to urban growth boundaries.

Brent Thompson is a former president of the Southern Oregon Land Conservancy, the Jackson County Citizens League and Friends of Jackson County.