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Developers clash over Medford urban growth boundary expansion

Battle lines are being drawn as well-connected developers scramble to be part of Medford’s major growth spurt that will determine development over the next 20 years.

Out of 4,400 acres of possible growth areas surrounding the city, about 38 percent — 1,669 acres — has been recommended by city planning staff for new construction, leaving developers who've been left out fuming.

“We’re taking a lot of heat,” said Bianca Petrou, assistant planning director. “They are very upset that they are not included.” 

The city is undergoing a complicated process that requires approval from the City Council, Jackson County commissioners and the Oregon Land Conservation and Development Commission to accommodate growth for the next 20 years. Basically, the city has to justify why and where that growth should occur.

The city proposes bringing in 2,069 acres total into its urban growth boundary, but 400 acres are unbuildable because of steep slopes, riparian areas or other concerns. That leaves 1,032 acres for residential construction and 637 acres for commercial and light industrial construction, considered employment areas.

A public hearing on the planning staff's recommendations will be held before the Medford Planning Commission at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, March 12, at City Hall, 411 W. Eighth St.

Most of the land proposed for Medford's growth is to the northeast and southeast. There are parcels north of East Vilas Road; land east of North Phoenix Road; Hillcrest Orchards, where RoxyAnn Winery sits; and the Centennial Golf Club, owned by the Rogue Valley Manor. Smaller parcels are proposed south of Garfield Street and west of town.

With multimillion-dollar projects on the line, developers left out will fight back by arguing against the planning recommendation or appealing to members of the Medford Planning Commission and the City Council.

Smaller developers are worried the bigger developers will sway city officials, prompting some to describe the lobbying efforts as the “Hunger Games."

The stakes are high for city officials as well, because they will have to justify why some areas are included and other areas are left out.

Petrou said the amount of acreage city staff has recommended be brought into the urban growth boundary could be more than Oregon land-use officials deem appropriate.

“We’ve justified the absolute maximum amount of land,” she said.

Planning staff have relied on analysis of existing infrastructure from water and sewer providers as well as other utilities in the valley to help rate the properties on whether they're good candidates for growth areas.

City planners have recommended excluding a large tract of land in the southeast controlled by Mahar Homes because it received low marks for proximity to existing city services such as water, sewer and transportation as well as other issues. The area in question has been identified as MD-5 on planning maps.

“It was more than disappointing to see that the northeastern portion of MD-5 was left out of the staff’s recommendations,” Randy Jones, a partner with Mahar Homes, stated in an email response. The portion that is being left out amounts to close to 400 acres, according to Jackson County records.

The Mahar property is to the west of 165-acre Chrissy Park and south of 1,711-acre Prescott Park, both of which the city wants to bring into its borders.

Jones said information used by planning staff to exclude his property didn’t sufficiently analyze all the background information, but he's confident further review will show flaws in the technical analysis.

Jones said the area is critical to the continued development of the Southeast Plan, which has been discussed for more than 20 years.

“The exclusion of the northeast portion of MD-5 will delay this plan another 20-plus years,” Jones said.

The Mahar land is crucial to completing the Larson Creek Greenway, a long-range project that eventually will connect the Bear Creek Greenway to Prescott Park. The Mahar land also is needed to run a sewer line to about 50 properties along Cherry Lane that were previously annexed to the city. The properties amount to 244 acres.

“We already know that many are as shocked as we are that they may have to wait an additional 20-plus years for zoning to allow these properties to develop,” Jones said.

Mahar has proposed creating a high-tech industrial center south of the Rogue Valley Manor. City planning staff has recommended including the industrial center as part of the 1,669 acres, but Mahar wants to provide housing to the high-tech workers on the property to the east that has been excluded.

Pacific Retirement Services, parent company of the Rogue Valley Manor, is planning to build up to 1,200 residences around Centennial Golf Club, and 120 acres of fairways have been designated for open space. The PRS land is included in the planning staff recommendation.

"We've sort of had this teed up for seven to eight years," said Brian McLemore, president of PRS.

He said the planning staff negotiated a difficult process and made a good case for the properties proposed for inclusion, distributing the growth as evenly as possible. He said he understands the reasons for excluding the Mahar property, adding, "That property is way out there."

McLemore said it doesn't make sense to him to pull out Hillcrest Orchards, as some have suggested, in order to bring the Mahar property in because Hillcrest already is surrounded by the city.

He suggested that Mahar could agree to take out its proposed employment center area south of the Manor to help justify bringing in the other property to the east.

For every acre Mahar wants in, another acre is going to have to come out, McLemore said.

"And, now the jockeying begins," he said. "If it gets to be an overly political process, it's going to be hard to justify to the state."

Greg Holmes, of 1000 Friends of Oregon, praised the planning staff for spreading growth around the city and keeping it as close as possible to existing services.

Holmes was heavily involved in Regional Problem Solving, a state-mandated effort that defined how the valley would develop over the next 50 years. Medford was allocated 4,400 acres total. City planners have determined 1,669 acres are needed for the first 20 years.

“From what I’ve seen so far, they are probably not going to be able to justify taking any more land than in the current proposal," Holmes said. “They may not be able to take all the land they have in the current proposal.”

Developers will be required to set aside open space, create employment areas and designate trail systems to encourage more pedestrians and cyclists. Many of the developments have set aside areas for schools. Holmes said a lot of these requirements were worked out in the RPS process.

To keep the growth spread evenly to other parts of the community, Holmes said he could see a case being made to exclude Hillcrest Orchards or the Centennial property if Mahar’s land is brought in.

“Those make the most sense,” he said.

Politics likely will drive decisions about where the growth should occur. But Holmes said politics can go only so far without running afoul of state goals of well-regulated growth.

“It will work as long as the politics keep in mind the legal and technical requirements,” he said.

Megan LaNier, of Richard Stevens and Associates Inc., said she thought Medford planning staff did a good job scoring areas based on objective criteria.

“The problem is that they can’t make everybody happy,” she said. “Everybody has their own pitch for each of the areas.”

LaNier represents Coker Butte Development property owners on 223 acres south of Vilas Road, designated as MD-2.

Whatever the city ends up doing will be challenging, LaNier said.

“If land comes in, other land has to come out,” she said. “It will be something that has to be justified with the state.”

Laz Ayala, a developer who owns two properties in southwest Medford and one in the northwest, said he thinks the planning department recommendation carefully and equitably chose properties around the city.

“I think they’ve objectively looked at the properties and have used appropriate criteria to justify their selections,” he said.

City Councilor Daniel Bunn said the staff recommendations are just a starting point in discussions that will continue with the Planning Commission and the City Council.

Even though some properties are far from existing services, he said that won’t be the only criteria the city looks at before it makes a decision.

“The cost to extend services is not an exact science,” he said.

Other considerations include Medford’s long-range plans for a pedestrian trail system and providing services to existing city lands that don’t already have them.

Bunn said the council will weigh the political considerations in determining which properties are brought in and which are left out.

Some of the issues, including the Mahar property, will be difficult for the council to navigate and could require considerable analysis before a decision is made, he said.

“It is one of the biggest votes you can take in your entire career,” Bunn said. “We want to get it right.”

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or dmann@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/reporterdm.

Pacific Retirement Services is planning to build up to 1,200 residences around Centennial Golf Club, and 120 acres of fairways have been designated for open space. The PRS land is included in the city planning staff's recommendation. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch