A plan to build 155 units of privately funded worker housing south of town has failed after town and county officials voted against the proposal.
“I know we need workforce housing,” County Commissioner Greg Epstein said. “But we need workforce housing in the right place.”
Developer Larry Huhn, a 38-year resident, sought to build 155 units of single-family workforce housing on 84 acres next to Munger Mountain Elementary School, 8 miles south of the town of Jackson.
County plans envision the Hog Island area as remaining rural with light industrial use. Under existing zoning, between 17 and 85 units could be built on the 84 acres.
With the new Munger Mountain Elementary School, a new five-lane highway and a new 6-inch sewer, Huhn’s team argued the area had changed enough to revisit it as suitable for workforce housing. In January Huhn’s team applied for an amendment to the 2012 Jackson/Teton County Comprehensive Plan to allow a denser housing development.
“This proposal probably is the most cost-effective way to get workforce housing because it’s all done without government subsidy,” project consultant Scott Pierson said. “We’ve got an opportunity here we don’t always get.”
Planning Department staff recommended denial of the proposal, saying the community should stick to the original vision for Hog Island despite infrastructure updates executed by state agencies.
During public comment, residents expressed the dire situation people face finding affordable housing. They urged finding flexibility in the Comprehensive Plan and compassion for struggling families.
“I think there’s a lot of people suffering in this community right now, and the general well-being in our community is what’s at risk,” Jackson Whole Grocer owner Jeff Rice said. “You know what the right thing to do is. It’s time to act. We need to have a sense of urgency. Can we afford not to do this?”
Former County Commissioner Hank Phibbs supported the project and said you can count on one hand the remaining opportunities to build substantial workforce housing in Teton County.
“Keep in mind, these chances, you may not see another one during all your collective times sitting at that table,” Phibbs said.
Some Hog Island neighbors worried about a lack of details for the project, such as implications for water and sewer, as well as a loss of the area’s rural character. Zach Vosika, who was raised south of town, was one resident who voiced those worries.
“The issue with putting development in this area is it would change the dynamic of what we consider home,” Vosika said.
The proposal required officials to grapple with conflicting comp plan goals: restricting dense development to the town, rather than outlying areas of the county, and housing 65% of the workforce locally.
Town Councilors Pete Muldoon, Jonathan Schechter, Hailey Morton Levinson and Arne Jorgensen voted against the proposal. Councilor Jim Stanford was absent. Teton County Commissioners Luther Propst, Greg Epstein and Mark Newcomb voted against the plan. Commissioners Natalia Macker and Mark Barron voted in favor.
Newcomb worried about giving up open space and wildlife habitat. Epstein feared the development would lead to sprawl and traffic problems by adding too many trips to and from town, favoring an examination of northern South Park for density. Town councilors thought it ill-conceived to change the Comprehensive Plan and preferred tweaks to county zoning.
“It feels to me as if we are being tactical and reactive,” Schechter said. “The point of the comp plan is to be proactive and strategic, and this violates that to me. It raises the larger question of, we spent many years and thousands of man and woman hours and millions of dollars trying to come up with this plan. We really need to follow it. Not with absolute rigidity, but this is blowing a hole in it.”
Muldoon said the project’s costs — like abandoning the comp plan, increased traffic and parking demand in town, and creating competition for development capacity for workforce housing within town limits — outweighed the benefit of adding worker housing.
Barron and Macker were the only officials who supported the proposal to add restricted worker housing at Hog Island. They said concerns about traffic, ensuring unit affordability and water could be addressed during later phases of vetting the project.
“It’s much easier to say no to things,” Macker said. “I think this is an opportunity for government to do something it doesn’t often do, which is to be nimble and respond to something that’s out there.”
Huhn was disappointed and surprised at the town and county decision, saying he didn’t understand how officials could turn down the first-ever proposal to build totally privately funded, totally deed-restricted housing, given the community need.
“It’s sad. I’ve been here 40 years. The people in power do not care. They’re not listening to people,” Huhn said. “It’s sad because I live here. I’ve got so many friends and family that will not be here in five, 10 years. They will not address this problem. I’ve got so many of my friends and family that are hanging on. Their bubble just burst today. They have no hope, they have no hope at all.”
He said he plans to look into whether he can make a different deed-restricted housing project work on the Munger property under existing zoning, but Tuesday’s rejection means a project would be less dense and more expensive.
“I have no interest in doing a subdivision down there unless it’s 100 percent deed restricted, because anytime I do a free-market home it adds to the problem we have,” Huhn said. “The sad thing is no matter what I propose to them now it’s gonna raise the price to the homeowner, and it kills me. It’s like, why? People have a hard enough time trying to buy a home here in Jackson, and most of them can’t.”