Debate over land-use issues has dominated the Democratic primary race for the Jackson County commissioner seat now held by Dave Gilmour, who is not running for re-election.
All three candidates — Buck Eichler, Jim Sims and Mark Wisnovsky — criticize the county over land-use issues that sometimes conflict with state and county laws and, they say, ultimately perform a disservice to property owners and the public.
Eichler, a former county construction inspector who is now a freelance grant writer, said the county created some of its own legal problems in the way it handled the property rights initiative Measure 37.
He said the county also has gotten developers in trouble by issuing permits before a project undergoes required state review.
"The really disturbing thing to me is over wetlands," he said. "In the past, the county has issued a permit before the wetland mitigation is approved by the state."
In some cases, he said, property owners have proceeded with the development only to get slapped down by the state.
One recent example is a rock pit in the Applegate that received a county permit, but was shut down after it was discovered it failed to receive a state permit.
Eichler said the county's role should be to protect the property owner as much as possible by insisting that all state permits be received prior to the county issuing its own permit.
He said a simple flowchart offered by the county would show what steps are needed, along with the phone numbers for the appropriate agencies.
"It's not that hard," he said. "It doesn't take that much staffing resources."
Eichler said many property owners might be dismayed by the regulations they have to follow, but it will save them time and money in the long run.
He said the county has a legal obligation not to be more restrictive than state law. However, he said the county also has an obligation to ensure property owners follow the law.
"The actions the state has taken against the county can be avoided with better communication," he said.
Sims, a Medford attorney, said the county commissioners have pushed their ideology into land-use issues, creating problems for landowners and resulting in unnecessary legal actions with the state.
"The problem is the county commissioners lack the legal land-use understanding," Sims said.
This ideology also creates problems on the planning side because the public isn't provided with enough information to deal with the complex land-use rules, he said.
"They don't know what the steps are or what the words of the legislation really mean," Sims said.
Commissioners don't appear to want to put aside their ideology to create a planning system that helps county residents negotiate this complex process, he said.Like them or not, complex land-use rules are often designed with the public's health and safety in mind, such as with developments that occur near rivers or creeks that could cause flooding downstream, Sims said. Planning is also designed to anticipate how areas will grow and should protect farmland and prevent urban sprawl. Poor planning can result in short-term gains, but the lack of it leads to transportation woes and difficulties providing services in the long run, he said.
"It's kind of like short-term profit taking, and we've seen the results of that from the banking industry," he said.
Though land use is a dominant theme for all candidates, both Eichler and Sims charge that while Wisnovsky talks about preserving agricultural land, his actions speak otherwise.
"If you say one thing and do another, what should the public think of that?" Sims said. "That's the question I have of Mark Wisnovsky."
Eichler said Wisnovsky appears to not have answered questions clearly about his mother filing a Measure 37 claim on the property used by the family for its Valley View Winery.
Wisnovsky, the winery president, said his mother filed the claim because she wanted to protect her home and a rental unit for her retirement. He said he didn't know at the time that her claim asked for a hotel and convention center.
The candidates say the commissioners took too firm a stance on Measure 37 (overturned by Measure 49) before they gathered all the facts, providing misleading information to many of the 600 individuals who filed claims. The county is now embroiled in a lawsuit over how it handled claims under Measure 37, which allowed waivers of land-use regulations under certain situations. Many of the property owners failed to file a separate claim to waive land-use regulations with the state because of language on a county application. Others have charged the commissioners urged residents to file claims, many of which are now valueless. As to the issue over his mother's claim, Wisnovsky said he stands on his record building the wine industry during the past 25 years. He said the industry started locally with his family's winery and about 100 acres and has grown to 1,500 acres and a $100 million business with many different wineries.
"I have been totally consistent," he said. "I wouldn't want to turn around and destroy that or attempt to destroy that."
Wisnovsky said he and the other two candidates are generally in agreement in supporting strong land-use laws.
He said decisions overturned by the Land Use Board of Appeals suggest the commissioners or the county have run afoul of their own laws.
"Part of the problem is they are not following their own rules," Wisnovsky said. "Jackson County is not following Jackson County laws. Whether it is ignorance or deliberate, I don't know."
Because the county's land-use process is sometimes vague, someone who receives approval for an application may not be clear about all the rules and regulations that might apply, Wisnovsky said. That uncertainty can lead to a waste of time and money as well as create potential legal liability on the part of the county.
Land use is a bigger issue than the county or commissioners can tackle by themselves, Wisnovsky said. If a group doesn't like the protective land-use laws in the state, which Wisnovsky said he generally supports, the venue for change isn't in Jackson County
"If you don't like the law, talk to the Legislature about changing the law," he said.
Damian Mann is a reporter for the Mail Tribune. Reach him at 776-4476, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.