After talking to nearly all of his 59 colleagues in the House of Representatives, Rep. Andy Schwartz of Teton County garnered 30 votes against House Bill 22, legislation that would have preempted local control over housing policy in Jackson Hole.
On the chopping block was the housing mitigation program, through which the town and county levy fees on development to pay for workforce housing or require developers to build it themselves. As elected officials with the town of Jackson and Teton County took the first steps in recent months to address developers’ concerns by improving the program, the valley’s state lawmakers stoked opposition to the bill that would have simply eliminated the housing requirements instead.
Schwartz’s one-on-ones secured a margin far wider than needed to kill the bill on the first day of the 2020 legislative session. It was enough to swing the vote in a regular session, let alone in a budget session like this one, when each bill requires a two-thirds majority to be introduced. The Teton County Democrat hopes that will send a message to anyone who plans to sponsor the bill again in the future.
Nevertheless, even as he celebrates the victory, he’s hesitant to let his guard down.
“I have every reason to think it will come back,” Schwartz said. Likely not this session, but in the next. This is the third time it has been proposed.
“We’ve been able to prevent it for three years,” he said, “but there’s a limit. I don’t know what that limit is.”
Many consider it a foregone conclusion the bill will rise again, especially if legislators from around the state get the impression that local officials are neglecting to fix what some view as a major hurdle to commercial development.
For decades Teton County has used mitigation to offset the community’s massive shortage of workforce housing. The program has brought in nearly $15 million since 1998, and that money has contributed to the construction of more than 250 homes, according to the town’s Community Development Department.
In the summer of 2018 the town and county substantially increased how much housing developers of commercial spaces are required to build or pay for. The higher mitigation rates drew ire from the business community.
Frustrated with the local policy, some Teton County residents — most associated with the advocacy group Jackson Hole Working — testified in favor of the bill at a November meeting of the Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee in Cheyenne.
“While Jackson Hole Working has been monitoring legislation pending in Cheyenne, we are committed to working locally and have seen progress since the fall from local electeds who know this current system is not working,” said Ted Staryk, chairman of Jackson Hole Working, in a statement.
The November meeting also drew opponents of the bill, including more than a dozen Teton County elected officials and staff, who pleaded with the committee to give them time to find a mutually agreeable solution themselves.
As Mayor Pete Muldoon wrote in a letter to all representatives just before the vote on whether to introduce House Bill 22 on Monday, “I promised to continue to work on improving our local ordinances.”
Seeking a fairer system, the town and county have since authorized an update to a housing study that shows how many employees are generated by various kinds of development. The original study was the foundation for the housing mitigation rates officials approved in 2018, and new data could prompt them to alter the rates again.
Besides that, Muldoon recently proposed a novel idea: a waiver on some percentage of the mitigation costs for new development that takes advantage of incentives to build workforce housing and that generates sales tax. However, that waiver would become available only if voters approve the seventh cent of sales tax that town and county officials may ask for in the November election, Muldoon said. This would essentially replace mitigation fees with sales tax as the financial underpinning for workforce housing.
As Muldoon sees it, that approach would be fairer, allowing development to help pay for housing without burdening commercial developers.
Town and county officials have also resolved to foster relationships with the rest of the state in an effort to understand the challenges other communities face and help them understand Jackson Hole issues as well.
When reached Tuesday morning, Muldoon and Councilor Jim Stanford were in Cheyenne, preparing to head to the Capitol.
“I don’t think the bill’s dead forever,” Muldoon said. “We’ve got a year to continue to make some improvements in our program and the way we provide housing as soon as we get back from Cheyenne.”