CHEYENNE — How Teton County copes with housing — from a lack of workforce units to vacant vacation homes — took center stage at the Legislature’s Joint Interim Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions meeting Monday in Cheyenne.

First, the committee voted 8-6 to advance a bill that would remove an affordable housing tool that Teton County has relied on for decades. The same committee then voted 3-11 to defeat a bill to allow counties to impose fees on owners of homes that sit vacant for more than half the year.

Given the housing-heavy agenda, more than 25 Jackson Hole residents, government staff and elected officials traveled more than 400 miles to the state’s capital to testify for and against the draft legislation.

Rep. Shelly Duncan, R-Goshen, first introduced House Bill 277 during last year’s legislative session, but the bill never made it to a hearing on the floor. Although the bill wasn’t on the agenda, Duncan revived it at a September committee meeting in Jackson. The bill calls for prohibiting towns and counties from requiring developers to pay for or build affordable housing as part of a new development project. Teton County has used the tool — often referred to as housing exactions — since the 1990s to deal with a shortage of available land and soaring real estate prices.

“Wyoming has a vibrant private sector that’s capable of solving its housing issues, if allowed to do so through less regulation and a robust incentive-based program,” Duncan told the committee.

About 14 people testified against the bill, including Jackson Hole Fire/EMS Chief Brady Hansen, several residents, and elected officials from the town and county.

They made the case that local government needs every tool possible to help supply workforce housing, and that even if the current cost of housing mitigation is too high, the issue is best handled locally rather than at the state level. Elected officials promised to evaluate whether the costs imposed on developers need to be changed.

“Housing has been the No. 1 issue in Teton County for decades. The need has only intensified over time,” Teton County commission chair Natalia Macker said. “We in Teton County believe it is most responsible for us to handle our housing issues ourselves.”

Clare Stumpf, of the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, said Teton County’s housing regulations are needed to safeguard workers, enrich community character and sustain businesses. Otherwise, she said, “our population will become increasingly displaced. My friends, colleagues and neighbors will either commute from hours away or just leave.”

About seven people testified in favor of the bill, including several board members of the advocacy group Jackson Hole Working. All were from Teton County, except representatives of the Wyoming Board of Realtors.

They argued that the town and county’s current housing regulations don’t work because the costs of providing the requirements are prohibitively high, stymieing new businesses and business growth. They also called Teton County’s housing regulations “no growth.”

“We feel like this is a government overreach, and we have reached our threshold,” architect John Stennis said.

Ultimately, the state committee voted to move the bill forward.

It did not, however, advance another bill proposed by Rep. Mike Yin, D-Jackson. Yin’s bill proposed letting counties decide for themselves whether to impose fees on homes that sit vacant more than six months out of the year.

Empty houses in Teton County are a “very large contributor” to the county’s workforce housing issues and hike property taxes for residents on fixed incomes, Yin said.

Legislators complimented Yin’s creativity but couldn’t get past concerns about private property rights, enforcement and unintended consequences.

“What about the fundamental private property right in this bill?” Duncan said. “Should I have government telling me that I need to rent my property or pay a fee?”

Some suggested the bill simply needed more work, such as adding exemptions for small cabins. Committee chair Sen. Bill Landen, R-Natrona, told Yin that the bill has “potential” and recommended he continue to work on refining it.

“I think you did hopefully hear what several of us are saying, which is I don’t think you’re on the wrong track here at all,” Landen said.

The 2020 legislative session begins Feb. 10 in Cheyenne.

Contact Allie Gross at 732-7063 or county@jhnewsandguide.com.

Allie Gross covers Teton County government. Originally from the Chicago area, she joined the News&Guide in 2017 after studying politics and Spanish at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.

(1) comment

Konrad Lau

Jackson Hole’s “housing woes” originate from the same place as every other city’s “housing woes”. Well-to-do folks move into an area, buy up properties that were traditionally owned by working class citizens many times feeling undeniable pressure to sell from the weight of ever-increasing taxes.

Perhaps a ranch has cattle, hay equipment, water wells and outbuildings but no real cash on hand at any time. The parents pass away and the local governments come swooping in for their “fair share” of the labors sweated by the parents. Most times, those tax collectors are driven by ideologies based in other population centers (most times collage towns) sparked by the misguided motivation to punish the “rich”.

Yes, the total value of the land and livestock may theoretically run into the millions of dollars, but value is often times not reflective of liquid cash. The children then cave into pressures from developers to sell. Developers buy the land and build high density condos and Mc Mansions and the single-family real estate tax values soar. In order to pay these taxes, landlords raise rents and retail pricing. Within a generation of two, residential real estate becomes impossible to afford for the average family.

Rent controls, intended to keep rental casts down, as is the case on both coasts, holds new investment in residential real estate down, and reinvestment by landlords back into their properties to a minimum.

So, let’s really have a conversation (as I so often hear).

The questions should be asking are:

Why is property so expensive?

Why are property taxes so high?

Why do we continue to raise greater and greater restrictions to the building of affordable housing?

I can tell you why. It is the most wealthy among us driving these rising costs and they don’t really give a hoot whether the folks working at the hardware store or the gift shops can afford their rent in town.

Please, all I ask is a little intellectual honesty. This is no arcane mystery.

(Edited by staff.)

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