A legislative committee voted 5-0 to advance a bill that could limit Wyoming municipalities’ authority over municipal utilities after hearing testimony from Jackson landowner Nikki Gill.
Gill’s plea came during a Senate Agriculture, State and Public Lands and Water Resources Committee hearing Thursday, which pit property rights and local control advocates against one another.
It was also the first time the debate over the Gill family’s push to develop its Teton County property has involved officials from all corners of Wyoming.
Gill told the committee the town of Jackson is improperly leveraging a wastewater connection to secure deed-restricted affordable housing.
Local regulations, she said, require developments near the town to connect with municipal wastewater — Teton County land development regulations do when “legal access is obtainable.” She said capacity isn’t an issue because the town has already accounted for the units.
“The reason they are giving us is discriminatory,” Gill said. “It is because they are trying to force no growth and force us to devalue the homes in order to get the connection.”
But Jackson Town Councilor Arne Jorgensen told the legislative committee that municipalities need discretion.
“Housing challenges in our community,” he said, “like many parts of Wyoming, are changing rapidly, largely driven by residents able to work remotely [who] are creating what are coming to be known as Zoom towns. Wyoming municipalities need to be able to address these developing issues through continued local control.”
At the center of the issue is the Gill family’s proposed 26-acre subdivision, which on Tuesday won initial approval from the Teton County Board of County Commissioners. Critics of the proposal have lambasted the development, concerned it will result in 80 or so market-rate homes unaffordable for Jackson Hole’s workforce. The proposed lots lack deed restrictions setting aside housing for the local workforce, and pandemic-driven demand has led the valley’s real estate market to skyrocket.
The Gill family says it has a “decades-old legal right” to develop there. In recent weeks, the family’s development application has been at a standstill because the Jackson Town Council has not said whether it will allow it to connect to municipal wastewater.
That has critics and county commissioners concerned, especially because of compounding water quality issues in the valley. The commission consequently tried to postpone a decision on the Gills’ development until the Town Council unveiled the results of its pending wastewater capacity study and made a decision about connection.
The council as a whole has not voted the connection up or down. But some town councilors have said they would like to see community “benefit” or “value” in subdivisions attached to the municipal system, while others have taken different tacks.
Senate File 157, filed Monday by Sen. Bo Biteman, R-Sheridan, could curtail two things. One is town councils’ ability to condition access to “public improvements” like public sewer systems on “deed restrictions or other restrictions which limit the value of a property or properties.” The other is county commissions’ ability to deny a “zoning certificate or other zoning decision on the nonexistence of a connection agreement or lack of connection” to public sewer.
The legislative committee ultimately advanced the bill with an amendment striking the part about boards of county commissioners after Biteman told the committee it was “not needed anymore.”
Gill previously said she would work to remove that condition after the Teton County Commission’s approval of her family’s sketch plan.
Wyoming Association of Municipalities Executive Director David Fraser viewed the Legislature’s consideration of the issue like a kid going around mom and asking dad for a better answer.
“And then I thought, you know it’s worse than that,” he told the committee. “It’s as if the kids didn’t like what they heard from mom and went to dad and dad said, ‘Not only can you do what mom said you couldn’t. But mom can’t have any say in it ever again.’”
But ranching lobbyists and others showed up to support the bill, asserting that the dispute in Teton County could be indicative of a larger issue: Limiting access to something like water and sewer because of an issue like affordable housing, which they perceived as unrelated.
“It’s not a one-town issue. What happens in one town happens in other towns,” said Brett Moline of the Wyoming Farm Bureau. “I think this is a good way to be preventative.”
Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Brian Boner, R-Converse and Platte Counties, said he had concerns about potential unintended consequences for municipalities. He asked for Biteman to consider an amendment prohibiting conditioning access to public infrastructure on deed restrictions unrelated to the operation of the public improvement in question.
But he did not push specific language Thursday, and instead joined the other four committee members in moving the bill forward.