Exorbitant housing costs are driving game wardens and wildlife biologists out of the valley as the Wyoming Game and Fish Department weighs departing Jackson. The Teton County Sheriff’s Office is asking for an extra $500,000-plus to help deputies afford to live in Teton County (see 2A). Candidates for office in November spent weeks promising action on a housing “crisis.”
So when elected officials voted last week to reject a plan to build 155 privately funded single-family homes south of town reserved for Teton County workers, the decision left some scratching their heads.
Developer Larry Huhn, a 38-year resident, sought to build 155 units of single-family deed-restricted workforce housing on 84 acres next to Munger Mountain Elementary School, 7 miles from the southern border of the town of Jackson. Huhn argued that the new school, five-lane highway and 6-inch sewer main meant the area has changed and should be considered for a dense new housing neighborhood.
But the 2012 Teton County/Jackson Comprehensive Plan envisions the Hog Island area remaining rural with light industrial use. Under existing zoning, only 17 to 85 units could be built on the property. So town and county planning staff recommended Huhn pursue an amendment to the plan.
Seven town and county elected officials denied an application to amend the Comprehensive Plan, effectively killing Huhn’s proposal.
Several officials were concerned that even if the units in Hog Island were deed-restricted for the workforce, affordability of the units — especially in the longterm — remained an open question.
Town Councilor Arne Jorgensen was “uncomfortable” with the proposal’s lack of clarity on deed restrictions and felt officials should learn from the mistakes of past “workforce” neighborhoods. Longterm affordability, several generations down the road, should be “bulletproof” when housing is proposed in a “less than ideal location,” he said.
“We have done a series of subdivisions in this community, going back to the late ’70s — Cottonwood, Rafter J, Melody Ranch, Indian Trails and Stilson,” Jorgensen said. “Each of those were approved and applauded and have done a great job of providing homes for people who live and work in this community. Where they have not succeeded is preserving a level of affordability.”
In those neighborhoods, many home prices are out of reach for working families. Councilor Jonathan Schechter and commissioners Greg Epstein, Luther Propst and Mark Newcomb all shared Jorgensen’s concern.
“The application offered vague housing restrictions in exchange for more than doubling the density in a far-flung suburban area of the county; however, the project offered little, if any, binding commitments that would ensure that the housing would be and would remain affordable,” Propst said.
Location, location, location
The suburban location itself was a deal-breaker for several officials, who worried that the development would exacerbate problems like traffic and sprawl, violating the Comprehensive Plan’s vision to concentrate density in the town of Jackson.
“This wasn’t a bad project,” Town Councilor Hailey Morton Levinson said. “It really ended up being the location.”
They favored sticking to the 2012 strategy over taking advantage of a single opportunity. Mayor Pete Muldoon said the strategy to add residential potential to the town is bearing fruit.
“We’re making progress where it matters, and I think it’s best to stay the course,” Muldoon said.
Propst said an “ad-hoc, rushed, parcel by parcel” approach isn’t the best strategy. Epstein agreed.
“We didn’t have the greater community conversation about, OK, is Hog Island really the place where we should put a large amount of housing versus other places in the county,” Epstein said. “By just jumping on all these opportunities what’s the point of strategy for the longterm well-being of our community?”
Instead of taking the opportunity presented by the Munger proposal, Epstein advocated rezoning northern South Park for high-density housing.
“If we’re going to build a development of that magnitude, let’s build it adjacent to where most people already work and where the services of our community are already provided,” he said.
From Newcomb’s perspective, the existing Comprehensive Plan shouldn’t be abandoned because as written it allows dense development. He said a land use tool could allow a dense neighborhood if it was balanced with permanently conserved open space.
He also said granting the requested “up zone” would be “a substantial increase in private property rights” and therefore unfair to neighbors or landowners in other parts of the county.
While the Munger proposal would have been funded with private dollars, Newcomb suggested the community might end up paying in the long term, such as for additional START bus service. Muldoon said other costs include “the cost of directing a lot of our development and construction capacity to a development that doesn’t meet our highest housing needs, which are smaller, more affordable homes closer to employment.”
The slippery slope
Schechter emphasized the value of the Comprehensive Plan in preserving the area’s ecosystem. He feared approving the Munger housing plan would set a “precedent,” jeopardizing the comp plan’s vision.
“If we said yes to that proposal, then anybody else seeking a change in the Comprehensive Plan would come in and say, ‘Look what you did with the Munger Mountain proposal,’” Schechter said. “What happens is incrementally, over time, a project happens, and a project happens, and pretty soon it’s death by a thousand cuts.”
Epstein and Morton Levinson also worried about setting the stage for “infill development” all along the South Highway 89 corridor from town to Hog Island.
“I felt if we’re going to increase it there, we kind of have to look at everything in between as well,” Morton Levinson said.
The ‘yes’ votes
Commissioners Natalia Macker and Mark Barron were the only officials who voted in favor of the Munger housing plan.
Macker said concerns like added traffic could be worked out during the “very public, multistep process” that would have followed. She said she was most disappointed to lose the opportunity to work with a private developer in a new way toward housing goals.
“I think what we all need to remember is that increasing the availability of affordable housing in our community requires lots of different projects and solutions and partners coming to the table,” Macker said, “and that we as the government are not going to be able to do it on our own.”
Barron stressed the rarity of a proposal offering a privately funded housing solution and said it’s unrealistic to expect the town of Jackson to supply all the valley’s housing stock.
All elected officials said they remain committed to finding ways to add affordable housing and understand community members’ frustration with the challenges of the Jackson Hole housing market.
“I also so deeply empathize with community members who maybe see this and are frustrated by it because they maybe would have been willing to spend the time to give it another look, too,” Macker said.