Despite ample interest in requiring that Snow King use its 1% fee on sales to pay for ski operations, town planners decided not to, potentially settling one of the most controversial parts of the resort’s new master plan.
Last week, Jackson’s Planning Commission finished its review of the revised plan, which will guide future development and use of the Town Hill. Snow King officials want to amend the document, written in 2000, as a solution to the resort’s persistent financial instability.
They first presented the updated plan to the town in 2018. Those negotiations ended in an impasse, but Snow King is now trying again, agreeing to a long list of requests from the Town Council.
One of the major changes they asked for the first time around was that the Snow King Resort Master Association, or SKRMA — a sort of HOA for the property owners in the resort district — levy a fee on commercial transactions to ensure it always has enough in reserves for maintenance of the district and other obligations.
However, another school of thought says the money should be used to fund on-mountain activities, rather than simply communal repairs throughout the district, which also includes the Snow King Hotel and several condominium associations.
Some in the community have long argued that the original master plan called for that arrangement. An oft-quoted passage in the plan states that “resort operation of lodging and other facilities provide the financial and operational platform and the resources to support” skiing and other “community-oriented activities.”
That concept piqued the interest of more than half the commissioners, who saw it as a benefit to the community that seemed to mesh with the spirit of the master plan.
“It does seem like that was the original intent,” Commissioner Abigail Petri said. “It did clearly sound like that.”
But the plan was written when all the sectors of the district fell under the same ownership group, making it easy to shift money around as necessary. Since then, the hotel and some condos have been sold, leaving distinct groups each with their own interests. Commissioner William Gale picked up on this, calling the recreation-centric proposal a “step backwards.”
“Why would the hotel want to be on the hook for … the mountain’s operations?” he said. “They don’t. They want to be here supporting the overall infrastructure of the resort district.”
At the commission meeting, Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance Director Skye Schell again contended the fee should be used for recreation.
Snow King officials have estimated that the fee will generate between $250,000 and $500,000 a year, a figure which Schell suggested could be enough to close the funding gap in the resort’s ledger.
“That’s sort of the magical unicorn solution,” he said. “How do we make the ski area break even?”
The resort’s finances are not public, so it’s unclear how much money would be needed. And besides, Snow King proposed the master plan update as a way not to break even but to turn a profit, with the addition of a zipline, a new gondola, more ski terrain and a suite of other upgrades to the mountain.
Ultimately, the commissioners decided against recommending to the Jackson Town Council — which has the final say — that the fee be used solely for recreation.
The councilors could require that regardless, but they decided not to when reviewing the first iteration of the master plan amendment earlier this year (though they did include a condition that the fee could be used for recreation if SKRMA were to fall out of compliance with the plan).
A handful of questions remain to be answered before the new master plan can be approved, including the precise makeup of the SKRMA ownership group and whether the resort can house employees in dormitories. But after a drawn out and contentious few years, Snow King and town officials seem closer than ever to resolution, especially considering the resort has agreed to nearly all the council’s requests from earlier this year.
Snow King representative Jeff Golightly praised the commissioners’ work, saying he was “really pleased with the outcome.” Schell, one of the resort’s most consistent critics, commended the resort for a number of “positive changes” in the latest master plan amendment.
The Planning Commission will now send its recommendations to the Town Council. Community Development Director Tyler Sinclair said he hopes to include Snow King on the agenda for the council’s Dec. 16 meeting.
Though this master plan amendment is technically separate from the first one, there is so much overlap between them that the councilors’ review likely won’t take as long as the first time, when they dedicated nine meetings to the matter between November 2018 and February 2019.
After so many hours spent analyzing the plan, and with the finish line in sight, Snow King chose to halt the process because the council declined to write a letter of support to the Bridger-Teton National Forest for a set of projects on U.S. Forest Service Land.
The resort has submitted a separate amendment to Bridger-Teton, for which forest officials are completing an environmental impact statement. They’ve already created a series of four “alternatives” for expansion and development on the mountain.