Conservation and workforce housing, two of Teton County residents’ top priorities, were in tension Tuesday as elected officials mulled final changes to the Comprehensive Plan.
Commissioner Mark Newcomb, an advocate of a county tool that allows developers bonus floor area in complete neighborhoods in exchange for conserving land elsewhere in the valley, wondered whether it would be possible to find places in the county suited for both that sort of development transfer and the development of workforce housing.
Language in the draft update to the 2012 Jackson/Teton County Comprehensive Plan calls for identifying “locations in the county that may be appropriate for higher residential density to meet community-wide workforce housing goals.” But Newcomb wondered whether that could go further — and if conservation could go hand-in-hand with workforce housing on those same parcels, in essence giving developers a choice between two community priorities.
“It’s just sort of choosing whatever benefit you want,” he said. “A strict upzone might really help us with workforce units. A transfer of units might help us work more for conservation.”
But other commissioners argued against that idea, cautioning that encouraging the two side by side may in fact bring housing and conservation into conflict with one another.
Commissioner Greg Epstein argued for keeping the two separate and instead creating a workforce housing overlay. The housing overlay is a tool that would work similarly to the county’s natural resources overlay, which is a map of areas in the valley that require different standards for permitting because of their sensitive natural environment.
“We need to have an affordable housing overlay throughout the county that fully is for creating neighborhoods that will include workforce housing,” Epstein said. “Conservation and conservation goals would not be the priority in that overlay. It would be housing.”
Discussions of the specifics on both sides were scant. That’s because the Jackson Town Council and Teton County Board of County Commissioners are in the final stages of updating the 2012 Comprehensive Plan, a document that serves as a framework for elected officials, planners and developers making land use decisions throughout the valley but is not a regulatory document.
It is instead what planners describe as a “visionary document” that establishes the community’s ideal future for Jackson Hole. It sets standards for rulemaking, which is accomplished through the town and county’s primary tools for policy making and enforcement: land development regulations. Officials received over 900 public comments throughout this update, which started over a year ago.
The conversation about finding suitable locations for conservation and workforce housing was not the only part of Tuesday’s conversation, which came after the Jackson and Teton County planning commissions both recommended their elected counterparts approve the plan.
Water quality was front and center, with Councilor Jim Stanford arguing to make access to clean drinking water a “right.” Climate change also garnered discussion.
Commissioner Mark Barron and other electeds tangled over the weight of the comp plan’s language about the latter. Barron argued against wording that he saw moving toward climate-oriented “mandates,” while others pushed back, asserting that there was no language mandating individual climate action in the plan. Those who did so, Mayor Pete Muldoon and Councilor Arne Jorgensen in particular, argued that now is the time to act on climate change.
The discussion about density transfers and workforce housing stood out because it underscores a central debate about community priorities: specifically, whether to prioritize workforce housing or conservation. The town and county have already tangled over development transfers once this year in the conversation about northern South Park, where the Gill and Lockhart families are both looking to develop.
Language encouraging the use of the Complete Neighborhood Planned Residential Development or CN-PRD tool in northern South Park was dropped from the comp plan and focus was instead put on a neighborhood planning effort in the area, which is now getting underway. Planners have long said that effort could result in a new zone for the area, which could include incentives for developing workforce housing.
Barron fretted that revisiting the CN-PRD could rehash that debate.
“I feel like we’re retreading terrain that we already resolved,” he said, arguing that conservation and workforce housing are “competing interests.”
Teton County Planning Director Chris Neubecker attempted to strike a balance between Newcomb, Barron and Epstein, arguing, in essence, that all of those points were valid.
He said he understood that conservation through development transfers and workforce housing could be at odds with one another, but said he thought exploring the language Newcomb proposed could result in progress on “community goals” if a developer bit on either front. He also supported Epstein’s proposal for an affordable housing overlay.
“I think we could identify areas that are appropriate for infill, and for higher density, and not necessarily a conservation area,” Neubecker said.
But Newcomb’s proposal was not adopted. Commissioners ultimately sided 3-2 for keeping language in the document that was solely focused on housing.
Commissioner Luther Propst, who questioned whether the CN-PRD tool had been effective, said he would have supported language looking at conservation as well.
Commission Chair Natalia D. Macker supported keeping related language in the Comprehensive Plan as it is.
The Town Council and Board of County Commissioners will revisit the comp plan update on Nov. 2.