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.