POWELL — The grassy highway-side bench overlooking the South Park elk feedground may soon be studded with five or more new homes occupied by state wildlife professionals now grappling with the valley’s housing crisis.
Meeting this week in Powell, the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission crossed off building housing on other local lands owned by the state agency, like tracts near Camp and Horse creeks and an inholding hugged between the National Elk Refuge and Bridger-Teton National Forest. Discussion of moving the regional office out of Jackson also appears to be over.
“It seems to be an agreement that we need to have a presence in Jackson,” Commissioner Mike Schmid, of La Barge, said Tuesday in Powell. “The property on South Park, I know we’ve talked about this many times over the last couple years. It seems to me we’ve come to the consensus that five homes are what we need to build.”
The commission started a discussion this spring about doing away with the regional office due to worries about a number of upcoming retirements, which will bring in new employees with little to no chance of affording a home in Jackson Hole. Game and Fish leadership has since endorsed staying in the valley in its current configuration and has been tasked by the commission with coming up with a game plan to ensure housing for most of the 15 full-time employees, who work out of the North Cache Street office building.
The far east side of the 832-acre South Park Wildlife Habitat Management Area nearest Highway 89 is the location being most vigorously studied by Game and Fish staff, though agency lands in Bondurant or Alpine are also still being considered. There’s also an ongoing discussion of teaming with other state agencies, like the Wyoming Department of Transportation, whose employees have also been largely priced out of Teton County. According to Wyoming’s Economic Analysis Division, rents and mortgages in the valley cost 213% of the Equality State average, and the disparity has grown steadily and continues to.
Ahead of their Tuesday meeting, at which no firm decisions were made, commissioners met for nearly three hours in a “work session” to learn about the agency’s options.
Cheyenne-based staffers Doug Brimeyer and Angi Bruce presented two possibilities: Co-locating a regional office based in Pinedale or elsewhere and keeping four to six employees in Jackson, or keeping everything here and building five or more new homes. Staying put was the focal point of the talks.
Building five houses on Game and Fish-deeded land would cost $2.5 million up front, they estimated, but it would also cut back on housing stipend payments to Teton County employees. Those payments, currently received by 11 employees, would decline from a combined total of $215,000 annually to $137,000 if five homes were built.
Four of Game and Fish’s 15 full-time regional employees already reside in agency-owned housing: two game wardens, an employee who lives near the Horse Creek elk feedground and the regional supervisor, Brad Hovinga.
Despite being the highest-paid employee, Hovinga told commissioners he couldn’t have afforded to take the job and come to Jackson if not for his provided home, which costs $43,200 annually in rent.
Brimeyer described the South Park habitat area being eyed for housing as an “extremely popular” place that’s used harmoniously by people walking dogs, riding horses and hunting ducks.
“It’s pretty much loved by everybody that’s up there,” he said.
The specific area that has already been examined by Game and Fish engineers as the prospective housing site is located immediately across the highway from the Jackson Hole Gun Club. It’s about 20 acres in size, but the homes would be clustered on the uphill, flatter portion of that zone, above where the land slopes off toward the Flat Creek and Snake River plain.
It’s a convenient location for housing, because utilities like sewer and electricity are already routed down the South Highway 89 right of way. There’s a nearby water well that supplies the gun club, though its capacity might not be adequate for five or more homes.
Patrick Crank, the commissioner most vocal about addressing the Jackson housing crisis, asked Game and Fish staff to gather more detailed information and price out different options for the prospective South Park workforce housing.
“This is an employee fairness issue for us,” Crank said. “I believe that.”
One idea sprung amid talks of moving the Jackson regional office that’s not totally dead is trading the 320-acre Teton Wildlife Habitat Management Area away to the federal government.
Crank’s expressed displeasure with sitting on the idle “$20 million-plus” asset, which has no road access and has little human utility, though it’s important wildlife habitat used by hundreds of wintering elk.
Commissioner Peter Dube, of Buffalo, has also spoken fondly about the idea of disposing of the parcel in exchange for something else.
“The Teton WHMA, it’s not possible to develop,” Dube said. “But I would still like to see us explore a trade with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. ... realizing that it might take several years.”
One possibility for land that would be received in exchange would be refuge property nearer the East Broadway administrative area, a site where Game and Fish could potentially build housing.