Six cities and the county have worked for 10 years on a project known as Regional Problem Solving that plots how communities will manage their growing populations.

A land-use watchdog group is urging local cities to stop eyeing 1,200 acres of prime farmland as they consider expanding their boundaries to accommodate populations that are projected to double.

Friends of Jackson County sent cities and Jackson County a letter on June 2 suggesting they increase population density rather than expand across agricultural land, which could risk conflicts with state land-use laws.

"There has never been a serious drive for increased density," said Brent Thompson, president of Friends of Jackson County.

Six cities and the county have worked for 10 years on a project known as Regional Problem Solving that plots how communities will manage their growing populations.

After much debate, the cities now propose to add about 8,500 acres of land for growth, of which 1,200 acres is considered prime farmland.

Thompson said Medford needs to have 5,000 people living in each square mile to avoid consuming the farmland. According to current estimates from the city, Medford now has about 3,385 residents per square mile.

Other cities should have a target of 4,000 people per square mile, he said.

He said that one of the main goals of RPS should be to preserve farmland, not encourage sprawl or take additional farmland for development.

Jim Huber, Medford's planning director, said many of the state rules regarding population density targets are subjective, leaving interpretation to the discretion of cities. He said the target densities for area cities were agreed upon years ago as part of RPS.

Huber said it would be difficult for Medford to attain the population density of a city like San Francisco, which has about 15,000 people per square mile.

In addition, some communities have more commercial area, or an airport or lots of parks that affect the population density figure.

However, he said it is generally agreed that the more compact the urban area, the more energy efficient it is, and the easier it is to service with mass transit.

"Those are valid points to raise," he said.

Thompson said higher density is one of the reasons why Ashland is part of RPS but will not be adding acreage.

"They knew they could do better," he said.

Thompson isn't the only voice advocating for higher density development as part of RPS. Two other land-use watchdog groups — Rogue Advocates and 1,000 Friends of Oregon — also have urged cities to avoid farmland and strive for greater density.

Thompson's letter arrived as cities are holding public hearings on the 10-year RPS process, the only one of its kind to have survived in the state.

Similar efforts failed elsewhere because participants could not reach an agreement. Jacksonville earlier dropped out of the local process, citing areas of disagreement.

The RPS effort uses a different approach to determine density by calculating the number of dwelling units per acre, rather than residents per square mile.

The Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development sent a letter to Jackson County on May 21 suggesting higher densities as part of RPS.

DLCD suggested the cities target a density of 7.26 dwelling units or higher, rather than the proposed target of 6.5 units. A density of 7.26 would stimulate mass transit efforts, advocates said.

"While we realize the cities have only committed to the lower density, high-land-need scenario, we believe this is a weakness in the plan which is out of tune with the future needs of the cities," wrote John Renz, the Southern Oregon representative for the DLCD.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or dmann@mailtribune.com.