With relatively little fanfare, a new group of Southern Oregon environmental activists has taken the lead in opposing controversial Jackson County planning decisions, earning praise from other environmental groups and condemnation from those who favor more development.
Rogue Advocates formed as a nonprofit organization in 2006, and has worked in both Jackson and Josephine counties against Measure 37, the property rights initiative. More recently it has been resisting efforts to mine gravel in the Applegate Valley.
Rogue Advocates' main voice is Jimmy MacLeod, 53, a Williams resident who volunteers his time. MacLeod said the organization carefully chooses the cases it takes and develops arguments that will stand up to legal tests. So far, that strategy has worked.
"Mostly for the stuff we've tackled, we've been successful — either part of it, or the whole enchilada," MacLeod said.
That success has earned Rogue Advocates no friends among those who favor fewer restrictions on property rights and development. Jack Swift, the lead attorney for Citizens for Constitutional Fairness, acknowledges he has referred to Rogue Advocates as a land-use vigilante group.
"If you are planning to do something, you have to anticipate this group is going to appear and challenge you," the Grants Pass resident said.
Citizens for Constitutional Fairness formed to battle in the courts for Measure 37 rights.
MacLeod said in general, state laws have been fairly effective at inhibiting unrestrained growth. The trouble starts at the local level, he said.
"The (county) commissioners' job is to facilitate growth in the area," he said. "If it makes money now, it will be up to the next generation to pay the bill."
Swift said the land-use process is geared toward confusion and expense, which makes development on rural land in Oregon a difficult and risky proposition.
"You have five tiers of regulation, one on top of the other," he said. "A person has to negotiate through this three-dimensional maze."
Because of the complexity of the maze, Swift said it is relatively easy for a land-use watchdog group to battle a landowner.
"You have these no-growth advocates who challenge anything in that three-dimensional maze at no cost," he said. "It is very easy (for Rogue Advocates) to be successful."
He said some environmental groups view any growth as detrimental, and ultimately want to undo the growth that has already occurred, Swift said.
"They would really like to see it return to the 18th century," he said.
MacLeod said it is unfair to characterize his organization as being opposed to any development. He said Rogue Advocates wants to strike a balance that will allow some growth, while encouraging a vision for long-range planning.
"I don't believe in just naysaying," MacLeod said. "There are valid issues on both sides of the debate."
The idea for Rogue Advocates first emerged one day when MacLeod went hiking with Spencer Lennard, another environmental activist, above Applegate Lake. They reached a certain vantage point where they could look out over both the Rogue and Applegate valleys. What they saw on the Rogue Valley side made them think that a lack of planning would lead to more sprawl.
Lennard had worked with KS Wild, and the two talked about creating an organization that would tackle land-use issues head on. MacLeod said he was worried the new organization might step on the toes of Friends of Jackson County or 1000 Friends of Oregon. Later, he learned they welcomed the new organization and they will be working together on certain land-use projects.
At the outset, Rogue Advocates concentrated almost entirely on Josephine County issues. By 2008, it became more active in Jackson County, Now, Rogue Advocates is handling more issues in Jackson County than in Josephine.
Choosing cases is not necessarily based on a fixed policy, MacLeod said, but mostly on whether a land-use action is precedent-setting or has some county-wide significance.
With an annual budget of about $30,000, the organization relies on volunteers, though Ashland attorney Sarah Vaile is paid.
Jackson County Commissioner Jack Walker said his goal as a property rights advocate has been to make local ordinances no less restrictive than state laws.
"That's been a goal of mine since day one," he said.
Walker said Rogue Advocates and other groups want the county to remain more restrictive than the state and will likely fight his efforts at every turn.
"You're looking a group out there that is looking at every excuse to appeal a land-use decision," he said.
Brent Thompson, of Friends of Jackson County, said he welcomes Rogue Advocates into the community of organizations concerned about the environment and growth in Jackson and Josephine counties.
He said Friends of Jackson County has been focused on a regional effort to map out the growth of Jackson County in anticipation of a doubling of the population.
MacLeod said unrestrained growth will strain transportation systems, lead to sprawl and ultimately promote a poor quality of life that large urban areas already face, he said.
"There is a whole lack of vision for something better," he said.
Damian Mann is a reporter for the Mail Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.