Town race focuses on community character
Look of Jackson counts, but mix of people is more important, candidates say.
By Noah Brenner, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
Date: July 16, 2008
Community character seems to be at the heart of almost every discussion before the Jackson Town Council.
Meetings focus on a range of topics: from how a particular development affects the character of a neighborhood to how the comprehensive plan revision should preserve the character of the entire town.
While much debate within Jackson has centered on development and its effect on the natural environment, town council candidates say it is the people that define Jackson. The look and feel of development within the town and its effects on the surrounding environment are important, but much of that importance lies in how they influence the type of people who choose to call town home.
The following offers a look at what town candidates think of Jackson’s character and their vision for the most densely populated portion of the valley. On Aug. 19, voters will whittle the field from nine Jackson candidates down to four. In the November general election, voters will fill two open council seats.
“It’s the mix of people that live and work in Jackson, from cowboys to mountain climbers, architects to ski bums, and political junkies to no-growth advocates,” that defines the feel of Jackson, Miles said. “What’s really amazing is how well we all get along as a community, respect each other’s points of view, and, oftentimes, cross over into each other’s worlds.”
Miles said growth that forces people out of the center of town and into their cars is the biggest threat to that character, because it cuts off the opportunity for daily interaction. To preserve those interactions, the town council needs to demand commercial development that is oriented to local needs, not just tourists, and it needs to ensure that there is housing included in commercial development.
“If we do that, we will also have taken care of our tourism base,” he said. “I know when I’m on vacation I’m always seeking out the local flavor and feel of a town, as it’s what truly defines a community.”
He said it is also important to consider what a development is removing, not just what will be built, because things like large trees or old cabins add to character and could be preserved in creative ways, such as offering bonuses to developers that preserve defining features.
“We don’t want to lose too much of that ‘truly historical Western character,’ but we also must face the reality of development costs,” he said. “We can have the best of both.”
Sullivan said Jackson is in the process of changing from a small rural community to a small urban one, but the council needs to be careful it does not go too far in the direction of dense development, because the desirability of living in Jackson, and the money behind that desire, are huge.
“Our social classes are polarizing, and development pressures are changing us to a small urban community; we need to be careful with our density so as not to lose our community character,” he said. “The more people we cram into any given space, the more difficult it becomes to get along.”
Sullivan said it is up to the council to set a reasonable level of development and then stick to the underlying zoning.
“It should define the rules of what can be done with property in any given zoning, not be a beginning point for negotiating what could be done on that property,” he said.
Sullivan said the council also needs to address the flight of longtime locals from the area.
“While the interests of tourists and people who want to live here are important and should be addressed, let’s take care of the wants and needs of the people that already live here as well,” he said. “I think we could address the mass exodus of longtime members of the community who have had enough and are cashing in and leaving; that is a huge concern to me.”
Wood said Jackson’s character has been changing ever since the arrival of the airport and continues to be in a state of flux.
“We have been trying to hold on to the ‘Old West’ feeling for sometime now,” he said. “I think we are losing that feeling as we become more of a small arts community and move from relying on the environment to protecting the environment.”
Besides the airport, huge buildings like the municipal parking garage and Center for the Arts, as well as an influx of second-home-owners and a migration of working people to outlying areas are all impacting the towns character, Wood said.
Wood said it is up to the town council to be responsive to what residents want Jackson to look and feel like and pursue policies that with that vision in the foreground.
“If we want to create Disney World here, then that is what we should do,” he said. “However, I do not feel that is the direction the residents of Jackson want to see.”
Instead, Wood said he thinks the community wants to see a greater emphasis on maintaining a stable middle class.
He said the council needs to “start making decisions which reward the backbone of our community, the working class. If we keep them here, we keep the small town feel of a cohesive community.”
Burson said that despite rapid growth, Jackson is still defined by its small-town feel.
“I think that people want to see some growth, but not too much to take away from the small-town feel,” he said.
But, Burson said, the town needs to act before that growth drowns out the remains of small-town Jackson, because pressure for commercial development – and a corresponding pressure to build affordable housing units as the real estate market escalates – could overwhelm us.
“The town council should limit growth, and go for more affordable housing units, rental units, not condos,” he said.
Burson said the town council should change development regulations to ban three-story buildings “no matter how good they look or even bad, like the parking garage.”
He also said the council should try to encourage construction of apartment buildings to provide workforce housing for those who can’t afford, or aren’t interested in, purchasing a home in Jackson.
“It is easy to focus on wooden sidewalks or Western-themed architecture when thinking of community character in Jackson,” Lasley said. “I believe that there are three things that identify Jackson: the small-town quality of life, the wildlife and other natural resources, and most of all, the people who live and work here.”
Lasley said the biggest threat to Jackson’s character is development.
“Development that is eliminating single-family homes with yards, changing neighborhoods by proposing commercial enclaves, removing functioning habitat for wildlife, blocking views and sunshine, skewing the population in our area to residents that are not participants in the activities that make a town a community,” she said.
The town council, she said, has a responsibility to demand better, more local-oriented development that is compatible with a small town.
“The town council should have an overriding vision of how we can maintain our small-town, neighborly, wildlife-friendly character,” she said. “This should be invoked anytime a proposal is presented to them for approval.”
Lee said both the look and feel of the town are important in defining its character, but the look of the community should help, not hurt, its feel.
“It can look like a small town by preserving the physical character, but if we do that at the sacrifice of the people who live here then it is not going to feel like a small town,” he said. “The look of the community is important because we don’t want to be Anywhere, USA, but maintaining the people here is why we feel like a small town.”
Keeping this hierarchy in mind is especially important as people, and especially dollars, flock to Jackson’s natural beauty.
The town council’s role is to make sure that town regulations explicitly support the community’s goals, such as housing workers in the valley and preserving open space and wildlife.
Lee said there are two areas the council should focus on. The first is adopting housing policies that keep workers in the valley.
“Maybe we only need to go to 30 percent [for a housing mitigation rate],” he said. “I am not married to a number; I am married to the idea of housing 65 percent of the workforce locally, and I am open to ideas.”
The second idea he espoused was changing town land-development regulations to make them more predictable, by defining things like appropriate building height and setbacks and then allowing developers to decide what mix of uses is appropriate for a project.
Obringer said his vision of community character is based entirely on the people that live in Jackson on a daily basis.
“To me, community character is the emotional and cultural connection I feel to this special place we call home,” he said. “We are so fortunate to still be able to go almost anywhere in town and visit with familiar faces in friendly places; a conversation at the coffee shop, talking politics at Teton Barbers or eating at Bubba’s and hearing ‘Did you get your elk?’”
Besides the people, Obringer said Jackson’s character is defined by a sense of security and familiarity that is lacking in many cities nationwide.
“How many places are there where you don’t lock your truck or have keys to the front door of your house?” he said. “What I like the best is I know we have neighbors looking out for us. You need a place to stay, call Clarene. If you are by yourself on Thanksgiving, you can go to the Teton Steakhouse and have a meal courtesy of Jan and Ann.”
Obringer did not address what he thought the town council’s role should be in preserving Jackson’s character or specific actions the council should take to support the residents that define the community.
– Candidates Abe Tabatabai
and John Bickner did not return calls for comment.