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RPS process is open, follows state statutes

Nine years ago, seven cities, Jackson County and five state agencies began Regional Problem Solving (RPS), a collaborative process based on the idea that we could, together, plan a better future for our valley than we could individually. Much was unknown when we started, but we trusted in a common desire to preserve what is good about this valley while planning for the reality of impending population growth.

Almost 500 meetings, hearings, and open houses later, we have a draft regional plan. Certainly, it isn't perfect — nor will it ever be. That's the nature of planning. It must also still go through a full vetting process of public hearings by the county and all cities, but it's a good plan, and a firm foundation for even better planning to come. With it, we can leave our children a better valley, a place where families can afford to live, where cities can design a sense of community into their futures, and where agriculture can co-exist with urban areas.

Appropriately, people have questions about the draft plan. Some are rightly concerned about how more growth will impact the valley, and want answers before deciding whether they will support the plan. We welcome these inquiries, and pledge an honest public process where input is not only given but heard. Unfortunately, as we are poised to begin this final public process, a number of misconceptions about RPS have appeared. Fortunately, last Sunday's opinion by Condé Cox allows us to address most of them.

He first states that RPS is simply a way to circumvent Oregon's strict land use laws by allowing cities to trade growth. This is not the case. RPS, established by statute, is actually part of Oregon's land use system, rather than some poison pill designed to take it down. In addition, the suggestion that apportioning population among cities is some sort of special RPS ability ignores the fact that, under existing Oregon law, Jackson County has the statutory responsibility to distribute future population growth among cities. RPS has simply supported this ongoing practice, which has been extremely useful in helping our communities, as closely spaced as they are, preserve their distinct personalities.

He labels Ashland as a no-growth city, which is incorrect. While Ashland is choosing not to designate urban reserves at this time, it is nonetheless still planning for population growth. Mr. Cox also errs in his suggestion that Ashland would not be able to establish urban reserves for decades under this plan, as the Participants Agreement very clearly outlines a process whereby a city may seek changes.

He also seems to confuse planning for future population growth with promoting it, suggesting that designating urban reserves, which set aside land in the county for eventual urban growth boundary expansions, will somehow cause growth. So if there is no agreement region-wide on how we'll mitigate the impact of future population growth, then people from other states will simply not show up? That doesn't seem to have worked so far.

He also claims that, by signing the Participants' Agreement now, cities are bound to the draft plan. We do not agree. According to the many lawyers who collaborated on the agreement, it only commits the signatories to a public process based on the draft plan. While signatories also agree to abide by an eventual plan, by law this agreement cannot force any city to accept changes it disagrees with. While we may consider adding language clarifying that point, the existing agreement cannot trump established jurisdictional rights and responsibilities.

Finally, Mr. Cox suggests that RPS is thwarting the public's right to weigh in on the plan. Not only does this diminish the contributions of hundreds of individuals who worked to create this plan in meetings, open houses, and hearings, but it also questions the integrity and professionalism of local staff, elected officials, and state agency representatives who conscientiously observe state land use laws and regulations every single day. The reality is this; RPS has absolutely no ability or intention of cutting short or cutting out any protections under Goal 1 (which guarantees the right of public participation). We only ask that this bold, collaborative effort by the Valley's cities and Jackson County go forward through the public adoption process.

In fact, it appears that recent efforts to prevent the RPS draft plan from proceeding to public hearings are the real threat to the public's right to be heard on this plan, and should stop. As Mr. Cox says, "democracy and open government demand nothing less."

Kate Jackson is chairwoman of the Regional Problem Solving Policy Committee.