Candidates disagree on fed land sale
Purchase of 10 acres from Forest Service could cost Jackson $11 million.
By Benjamin Graham, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
July 11, 2012
The nine candidates vying for two open seats on the Jackson Town Council differ dramatically in their views of the town’s potential purchase of 10 acres of U.S. Forest Service land on North Cache Street.
Most agree they would prefer the Forest Service not sell the land but disagree whether the town should buy it.
Members of the Jackson Town Council and the Teton County Board of Commissioners must decide by Aug. 27 whether to include the land purchase on the specific purpose excise tax ballot.
The Forest Service appraises the property at $11.55 million.
The town has pursued the property for years in an effort to persuade the Forest Service to keep its administrative offices in Jackson.
Money from the sale would help pay for renovations; the Forest Service has, as an alternative, studied moving its Bridger-Teton National Forest offices to Alpine.
While the newcomers in the council race can weigh in on whether the purchase should be included on the SPET ballot, only the two incumbents will have a vote on the matter.
If voters do approve the land purchase, it would be the job of newly elected councilors and town council incumbents to decide the future of the land. If the project is dropped, elected officials would have the option of pursuing it at auction.
“I don’t believe we need to have a plan to put it on the ballot,” incumbent candidate Greg Miles said of the land purchase. Miles is seeking his second term on the town council.
“I want the public to decide whether this is important enough to them,” he said.
If the town purchases the parcel, Miles said he would look into how town departments could use the land and would consider putting a permanent conservation easement on it.
He also said he supports private development in town and doesn’t have a problem with a private developer taking over the property if the town is unable to purchase it.
Candidate Phillip Cameron said he is wary of shifting public lands to private ownership and would support the town purchasing the property, even if an exact use isn’t specified.
“That piece of land has such huge implications for what the north end of town looks like,” Cameron said. “I’d like to see the property stay in the public’s hands in some capacity.”
Jim Stanford, another candidate, said he wants town officials to hash out the potential uses of the land before including it on the ballot.
“If we are to put the question to voters on how to spend $12 million, we need to give them a detailed plan,” Stanford said.
He also asked for more openness from officials in any discussions with private buyers interested in the property.
Stanford said the purchase price seems high and that he would be comfortable letting the property go to auction.
If voters do approve the purchase, Stanford would like to see a mix of commercial buildings and housing built on the property.
“No matter who buys the land, the town should secure an easement for a road that would connect North Cache with the Gill Addition neighborhood to the east,” he said.
The route would allow for faster access to the hospital and could ease congestion on North Cache Street, he said.
Mark Obringer, who is seeking his fifth term on the council, said his top priority is keeping the land public, rather than determining its future use.
“We’ll always figure out a way to use the property,” Obringer said. “Keeping it in the public’s hands has been a goal for 20 years.”
He said the town has looked at many options for the land and that the issue should be included on the SPET ballot.
“From my standpoint, what I don’t want to see is 10 acres of commercial property,” he said.
Candidate Kelly Egan cited cost as her main concern and said she would rather not see the purchase appear on the ballot.
“The appraised cost is high,” Egan said. “Our resources are already stretched thin.”
She believes other proposed SPET initiatives are more pressing; she mentioned closing the dump at Horsethief Canyon, which could also appear on the ballot this year.
“I would, however, fully support any qualified organization — not the town of Jackson — that has a clear plan for the use or conservation of the 10 acres to submit their plan for inclusion on the SPET ballot,” Egan said.
Hailey Morton, another candidate, also said she is uncomfortable with the price of the purchase but would like to see the issue appear on the ballot.
“Not only is the purchase price an immense amount of money, which would take several years to pay through the SPET, but whatever is decided to do with the land will cost additional tax dollars,” Morton said.
Despite her reservations, Morton said the public should be able to weigh in on the land purchase through the SPET ballot, even if a use is not specified.
Candidate Jim Genzer believes the town should not rush the issue and instead should allow the next group of elected officials to be a part of the decision.
“It’s too expensive to keep it public for public’s sake,” Genzer said.
If the land does go to auction, he said he would support the town pursuing it at a market rate.
“If the town feels like they really need the property, I would take my chances in an auction rather than paying the $11.55 million.”
He also said he wants to hear more public discussion before making a decision on use, but he said putting any START Bus facilities on the property would be “inappropriate.”
Candidate Steve Harrington, who served as a councilor from 2002 to 2006, said the property may be the last 10 acres of open space in town, but he is hesitant to specify a use for the land.
“I would not tie the purchase to a specific project other than to say that the land would remain in public hands,” Harrington said. “But I would explain what some potential uses might include.”
If the land were to be purchased, he would not rush to build something.
“If the town was to determine that the land was necessary to accommodate future growth — the municipal side of growth — then I would strongly look into the possibility of buying it,” he said.
Candidate Emy diGrappa said buying the Forest Service land could be a “visionary move” for the council.
“With vision, the town can plan for the future to mitigate traffic congestion at Cache and Broadway,” she said.
She doesn’t believe a specific use for the land should be outlined before putting the issue up for vote, but did say any future use should be in line with the comprehensive plan’s vision to protect wildlife and open spaces.
DiGrappa said past ideas about using the land for visitor services, such as a public transportation center, public parking space or walkways to downtown Jackson, still have merit.
Primary elections are set to take place Aug. 21, in which the field of nine councilor candidates will be pared down to four. The top two vote getters in the general elections in November will win the two open council seats.