Jackson County Regional Problem Solving (RPS) Plan Features: The Good, the Bad, and the Other

By Greg Holmes, Southern Oregon Regional Advocate, December 2012Updated April 2013.

On November 15, 2012, the Land Conservation and Development Commission (LCDC) formally approved, or “acknowledged,” Jackson County’s “Greater Bear Creek Valley Regional Problem Solving” or “RPS” plan. The plan is the result of more than a decade of cooperation between Jackson County and the cities of Ashland, Central Point, Eagle Point, Medford, Phoenix and Talent. It was intended to be a coordinated plan for how the County and the cities would accommodate a doubling of the region’s population—which projections suggest could happen within the next 50 years.

Assuming the LCDC decision is not appealed, the plan is now final and can be implemented by the cities beginning in early 2013. The plan will dictate how the cities in the valley grow for the next 50 years, and will have economic and social consequences for decades after that. For that reason it is important to understand the major elements of the plan. The plan itself can be viewed here. Plan maps can be viewed hereWarning: Large File, 25 MB. (Note that the links are to the version of the plan that was adopted by the county in November of 2011. About eight changes were made to the plan subsequent to a March 2012 letter from LCDC. The changes have not yet been incorporated into the text of the plan, but are expected to be in early 2013.)

Below you will find a discussion of some of the best and the worst features of this plan.

Context

The mechanism the region chose to pursue for planning for this population growth was to establish urban reserves for each of the six cities that finished the process. The term “Regional Problem Solving” comes from the statute that authorized the process the County followed in establishing those urban reserves. For more information on urban reserves or the RPS process, see RPS Frequently Asked Questions.

The Good

The plan includes a number of notable features—some of which might serve as templates for other cities to follow as they plan for their futures. Some of the more significant of these features are discussed below. The full text of these and other requirements can be found in Chapter 5 of the plan.

Creation of an Agricultural Task Force

The RPS process was an outgrowth of an earlier effort called “OurRegion,” which was begun by agriculturalists and citizens who were concerned about the loss of farmland around the cities in this part of Jackson County. One of the criticisms of the RPS process has been that it dropped the earlier project’s approach of identifying the best farmland in the valley and growing the cities around it, in favor of a more business-as-usual approach of prioritizing the wants and needs of the cities over other interests. An early proposal that would have mitigated this somewhat by permanently protecting some agricultural land was made optional—effectively neutering it.

During the County’s hearings process, 1000 Friends Affiliate Rogue Advocates proposed that a “Farmland Conservation Program” become part of the RPS plan. Local irrigation districts, after becoming aware of how many acres of farmland they provide irrigation for would be lost to urbanization, also proposed a program for ensuring their continued viability. While neither of these plans was adopted, the County did include the creation of an Agricultural Task Force. Made up of a diverse group representing expertise in appropriate fields, the plan requires that prior to the expansion of any of the UGBs onto urban reserve land:

The Agricultural Task Force shall develop a program to assess the impacts on the agricultural economy of Jackson County arising from the loss of agricultural land and/or the ability to irrigate agricultural land, which may result from Urban Growth Boundary Amendments. The Agricultural Task Force shall also identify potential mitigation measures, including financial strategies, to offset those impacts. Appropriate mitigation measures shall be applied to Urban Growth Boundary Amendment proposals.

That task force has been appointed, and began meeting in March of 2013. 1000 Friends of Oregon’s Southern Oregon Advocate Greg Holmes was elected the Vice Chair of the task force, which will continue to meet at least into the fall of 2013. For more information about the task force and its meetings contact the Jackson County Planning Department here.

 

More detail can be found in Chapter 5, Section 2.20 of the plan. Download it here.

 

Regionally Consistent Agricultural Buffering Standards

Like many cities in other parts of Oregon, the cities involved in this plan are largely surrounded by agricultural land. This means that when the cities expand they will frequently take farmland out of production. It also often means that new buildings, sometimes houses, will be built right next to operating farms. This frequently results in conflicts between farmers and the residents of homes or owners of businesses who don’t like the noise, smells, dust, or activities that come with farming.

Some cities attempt to mitigate these impacts by creating “buffers” between new construction and adjacent agricultural lands. These buffers come in many forms, including distance, walls, and vegetation. Buffers are often, but not always, on the city side of the UGB line. One problem for farmers, however, is that these buffering standards are often inconsistent, and their application is sometimes spotty. Cities generally control whether and how those requirements are met, and sometimes decision-makers bow to pressure from developers to ease the standards.

The Jackson County RPS process put a significant amount of time and effort into developing a comprehensive set of buffering standards. There are multiple options for meeting the standards, but in all cases the onus is on the developer to minimize or eliminate the impacts of urbanization on the farmer. The plan requires that all cities adopt these standards, and that they be consistently applied to all development that occurs on urban reserve land adjacent to agricultural land.

This requirement is found in Chapter 5, Section 2.10 of the plan. The detailed standards can be seen here.

Early Conceptual Planning for UGB Expansions

Typically when land is brought into a UGB, there has been some general thought as to what the land will be zoned (i.e., some will be for residential use, some for employment), but specific uses in specific locations have not been considered at this stage. This makes planning for large areas, or planning for the needs of the city as a whole, more difficult.

The RPS agreement requires Conceptual Plans be prepared for each urban reserve as a part of the process of designating them as part of the UGB. These plans must include several elements and must show how the area, once built out, will be in compliance with the plan. They must also include the results of the transportation plans noted below.

Some of the urban reserve areas were only approved to meet specific needs that were asserted by the cities. For instance, Central Point has an area (known as CP-1B) that was approved only for industrial use, with some limited commercial in support of the industrial use. Residential use is prohibited there. The conceptual plans must show how that requirement will be met. For those with residential uses, the plans must also show how the densities committed to by the cities will be achieved, and how they will promote the mixed-use/pedestrian friendly development commitments made by the cities.

Finally, if after a city includes the area in the city limits either the city or the developer wants to do something that is inconsistent with the conceptual plan, a new plan must be submitted to the County for approval. This is a very unusual requirement that should help ensure that future development is in compliance with the commitments made in the plan.

This requirement is found in Chapter 5, Sections 2.8 and 5.1.5 of the plan. Download it here.

Integrated Transportation Planning

Typically when land is brought into a UGB, there has been some general thought as to what the land will be zoned (i.e., some will be for residential use, some for employment), but specific uses in specific locations have not been considered at this stage. This makes planning for large areas, or planning for the needs of the city as a whole, more difficult.

The RPS agreement requires Conceptual Plans be prepared for each urban reserve as a part of the process of designating them as part of the UGB. These plans must include several elements and must show how the area, once built out, will be in compliance with the plan. They must also include the results of the transportation plans noted below.

Some of the urban reserve areas were only approved to meet specific needs that were asserted by the cities. For instance, Central Point has an area (known as CP-1B) that was approved only for industrial use, with some limited commercial in support of the industrial use. Residential use is prohibited there. The conceptual plans must show how that requirement will be met. For those with residential uses, the plans must also show how the densities committed to by the cities will be achieved, and how they will promote the mixed-use/pedestrian friendly development commitments made by the cities.

Finally, if after a city includes the area in the city limits either the city or the developer wants to do something that is inconsistent with the conceptual plan, a new plan must be submitted to the County for approval. This is a very unusual requirement that should help ensure that future development is in compliance with the commitments made in the plan.

This requirement is found in Chapter 5, Sections 2.8 and 5.1.5 of the plan. Download it here.

Extra Teeth for Assuring Cities Build According to the Plan

All of these requirements sound good, but once development starts they will only be as good as their implementation. It is unfortunate but true that sometimes commitments are made but not lived up to. In order to limit that possibility, and to maximize the likelihood that these provisions will be complied with, the County and the cities agreed to a number checks and corrective measures.

These include agreement that the County will not approve future UGB amendment proposals unless the cities can demonstrate that they have complied with the commitments they made in the plan or they have put corrective measures in place that will lead them to compliance. In addition, UGB amendments will be conditioned on future zoning and development being consistent with the conceptual plans noted above. If differences arise during the development phase, the city must return to the county for approval. If those changes result in non-compliance with other elements of the plan, corrective measures must be implemented.

Other requirements limit the ways in which land that is not part of the urban reserves can be added to UGBs, and require that when that happens an equivalent amount of land be removed from the urban reserves.

The plan also requires monitoring by the region every five years to make sure the region as a whole is complying with the terms of the agreement, and specifies the process and circumstances under which the plan can be modified.

These requirements can be found in Chapter 5, Sections 4 and 5 of the plan. Download Chapter 5 here.

 

The Bad

Despite these laudable commitments, the plan originally presented to LCDC included some questionable features, as well as some elements that represent outright bad policy and may even violate statewide and local regulations. In March of 2012, 1000 Friends asked LCDC to require changes to the plan that would eliminate or reduce the impact of some of these items. In a letter to Jackson County LCDC requested that a number of changes be made to the plan. The county and the cities subsequently made these and other changes before the plan was finalized.

Although the effects have been mitigated somewhat, the following elements of the plan still represent significant weaknesses.

Urban Density Commitments For Medford Are Too Low

The term “density” comes with a lot of baggage, but the concept is very important for functional, affordable communities. How we grow inside our cities and towns is as important as the UGB itself.  If we build communities in a low density, auto-oriented pattern, with jobs and schools separated from where people live, the sprawling development that results puts pressure on the UGB to expand. It costs a lot of money to extend streets, sewer and water, and other utilities to new areas—money that can’t be spent maintaining or improving infrastructure we have already paid for. That's bad for our cities and towns, as well as the farmland that surrounds them.

In early 2010, before Jackson County began its hearings, the densities proposed by all of the cities were so low that the resulting average density in 50 years would barely be that which the Rogue Valley Transportation District (RVTD) states is a bare minimum for intermediate bus service. During the county’s hearings process 1000 Friends and citizens from the region requested that the densities be increased. The county did increase the densities to a higher average that would better support transit in the future.

Despite this change, however, the plan adopted by the county at the end of 2011 gave Medford, by far the largest city in the region, the lowest proposed density for residential development. That simply does not make sense from a regional perspective. If transit does not work in Medford—the employment and shopping hub of the region, as well as the population center—it will not work in the valley overall. We simply cannot afford to build all of the roads and parking lots that will be required for all of the cars if people are not given the opportunity to choose options other than cars for some of their trips.

Studies abound showing providing these options is not only better for the economy, but also for people’s health, helps toward the goal of energy independence, and saves taxpayer dollars. Medford should be the regional leader in this respect, rather than taking up the rear.

In March of 2012, we asked LCDC to require the region to increase Medford’s density. Medford’s density was subsequently raised—albeit by a very small amount that did not affect the amount of land in Medford’s urban reserve proposal. 

The Amount of “Employment” Land in the Phoenix Proposal is Unsupportable

It is critical that community plans include a realistic amount of land for future employment. Not enough land can result in stifling the local economy. On the other hand, including more land than might realistically be needed results in taking farmland out of production and can result in inefficient development, unnecessary expenditure of taxpayer money to build unneeded infrastructure, and spreading scarce resources so thin that none of the development actually benefits the city.

Despite the fact that it will have less than 1/3 the population of Central Point and less than 1/2 the population of Eagle Point, Phoenix is being allocated nearly the same amount of employment land as these two cities. The result is that Phoenix is allocated more employment land on a per-capita basis than any other city in the plan. While this is an admirable aspiration, there is nothing in this plan that would suggest that this employment will, in fact, locate in Phoenix.

Once established, urban reserves become the first priority for inclusion in future urban growth boundary expansions. The regulations regarding how much and what land can be included in urban reserves require that cities demonstrate a “need” for the land they propose to include. Although parallel processes, the UGB amendment process requires a much more stringent demonstration of “need” when determining how much land to add. No land that cannot be shown to be needed under the UGB amendment procedures will ever be included in an UGB. Thus, it does not make sense to include land in the urban reserves if it will not be able to be shown to be “needed” for future UGB expansions.

During the hearings process the Board of Commissioners not only failed to adjust the Phoenix allocation to reflect reality, but they actually added more employment land to the city by adding the area known as “PH-2.” This addition was in spite of findings in the record that showed it was not suitable for urbanization, the fact that it was found to be high value farm land critical to the region’s agricultural economy, and the fact that both the Phoenix Planning Commission and the City Council requested that this land not be included in the plan. Based on requests from 1000 Friends and others, and on the consent of the city of Phoenix, in March of 2012 LCDC asked the County to remove PH-2 from the plan. PH-2 was subsequently removed.

Part of the reason that so much employment land was originally included for Phoenix was to bring a large employment area to the southern end of the valley. The area between Phoenix and Medford on the east side of Interstate 5 was included for this purpose as the “South Valley Employment Center.” We and others are concerned that, as the plan is currently written, Phoenix’s ambitions for the South Valley Employment Center will not be met due to a lack of regional policies. We argued at LCDC that it is in the region’s best interests to include specific policies and commitments in this plan to help achieve the desired outcomes in the South Valley Employment Center. LCDC asked that requirements be added to Chapter 5 of the plan for special planning for this area. Although no land was removed from the plan, and no regional commitments were made to provide the infrastructure needed to make this development happen, the County did add the requirement that all of the cities in the region assist the city of Phoenix in creating a plan to make the employment center vision a reality.

The Treatment of Parkland Artificially Inflates the Land Need Projection

The need for open space and parkland becomes more acute when densities increase: smaller yards for individual houses can be offset by more open or common space. However, this space costs cities (and taxpayers) a lot of money to purchase and maintain, and should therefore be planned for realistically. Excessive projections also unnecessarily take more farmland out of production, and cities will often be pressured to later convert some of this land to other uses. The plan approved included approximately 1,025 acres of land for parks and open space.

The plan overstates the need for parkland in that it assumes that all 1,025 acres of this land for parks must be buildable land, despite the fact that local parks plans anticipate including unbuildable land and many existing regional parks in fact do include unbuildable land.  While features such as slopes, riparian areas, wetlands, utility easements and floodplains might limit possible residential development, these features do not create the same limitations on the use of land for parks. In fact, many of these features are commonly incorporated into parks. (The Bear Creek Greenway and Lithia Park are two prime local examples.)

The plan asserts that there are nearly 1,000 acres of unbuildable land in the proposed urban reserves. Assuming that significant portions of this unbuildable land are not available for parks and adding over 1,000 acres of buildable lands for parks is unjustifiable.

This overstatement is exacerbated by Medford’s proposal for Chrissey Park. Prior to the beginning of the County Planning Commission, these lands were considered to be in a separate category—a convention that we held to. However, very late in the process it was disclosed that Medford plans to develop a neighborhood park within Chrissey Park. This land is directly adjacent to a large area proposed for residential use and which contains over 300 acres proposed for parkland—a figure that was apparently not adjusted downward when this change in Chrissey Park’s use was proposed. This further overstates Medford’s need for parkland as expressed in the “Open Space/Parks” category.

In March of 2012, LCDC requested that the region add a requirement to the plan that would clarify that for the purposes of future UGB expansions the cities would have to treat unbuildable land as available for parks consistent with state regulations and local practices. This change was made by the county and agreed to by the cities. While this solution did not reduce the number of acres in the urban reserves, it will force the cities to be more efficient in their use of buildable land when they increase their urban growth boundaries.

The Other

This plan is a product of the times in which it was created. The underlying assumptions (projections of population and employment growth, future housing needs and types of jobs, costs for providing infrastructure, etc.) were made between the late 1990’s and about 2006—a time of unprecedented growth and prosperity in the region. Although the plan contains many progressive elements, at its core it is a plan for more of the same: relatively rapid growth rates resulting in twice as many people, with the assumption that they will want similar types of houses and neighborhoods; a continuation of home ownership patterns; a commodity-based agricultural system that de-values small farms and local markets; and twice as many cars with only a modest increase in options for people who, for whatever reason, want other options.

The times have changed since then. Between the economic crash of the past few years, and demographic changes coming with the retirement of baby-boomers combined with the preferences being shown by younger adults, the future looks very different.

Trends are already showing a higher percentage of the population wanting to rent rather than own their homes, and who want to live in smaller spaces closer to the services they need, with options for walking, cycling, or transit instead of always needing a car. Communities that provide these options have been shown to be healthier—not only in medical terms but in their economy as well. Local food production is being valued more, and projections for transportation costs indicate this will only increase. In some parts of the country farmland is becoming more valuable than urban land.

It has been argued that this was the best plan this region could develop during the time it was developed. That may or may not be true. It does seem likely, however, that the future will not look exactly like what is contemplated in the plan. The key now is to use the parts that work to move toward a future that provides more options for more people and continues to enhance the quality of life of this truly amazing place.

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