Only one candidate for the County Commission said he would have voted in favor of the Gill family’s rezone proposal in northern South Park, which the sitting commission voted down, opting instead for a neighborhood planning effort in the area.
The other four candidates said they would have voted against it or explained why they did during a Thursday evening candidate forum where the five commission hopefuls talked about seasonal workers, cracking down on short-term rentals like Airbnbs and addressing the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on Jackson Hole’s Latino community, among other topics.
“It’s a shame that this was denied,” said Republican Peter Long, the lone voice of support. “Sadly, it follows a trend of continually moving the goalposts on good opportunities that come before the commission and letting what ifs stand in the way of really good opportunities to build housing that our workforce needs.”
Two other candidates, Democratic Commissioners Natalia D. Macker and Greg Epstein, are incumbents — the Teton County Board of County Commissioners’ chair and vice chair, respectively. Both voted against the proposal. Independent Wes Gardner and Republican Christian Beckwith said they would have done the same.
The Gills had proposed deed restricting 65% of the lots in the 300-plus unit development, about 200, for the local workforce. They had also pledged a gift of between 30 and 40 of the deed-restricted lots to Habitat for Humanity of the Greater Teton Area, and then, days before the vote, another 50 to the Jackson Hole Community Housing Trust. The remaining deed-restricted lots, the family said, would have been sold for between $150,000 and $200,000, which is below market rate.
But the Gills did not specify what sort of deed restrictions would be used on the property. That led members of the community to question whether the units would be affordable for a broad swath of Teton County workers. Critics also wondered whether the lack of specificity as to who would constitute a Teton County worker could open the homes to highly paid remote workers rather than Jackson Hole residents who live and work in the valley.
Macker noted that the Gills and the Lockharts, who are also looking to develop land in northern South Park, have been invited to participate in the neighborhood planning effort as part of a steering committee. And, she said, the county needs better zoning tools for these sorts of applications, something planners have long said could result from a neighborhood planning process.
“I think we have the opportunity to get this right,” Macker said. “We can’t afford not to put in the work as a community to plan this area as well as we possibly can.”
Gardner felt similarly, concerned about affordability.
“There are no assurances in the current proposal of permanent affordability for our workforce,” he said. “What is an appropriate response is a comprehensive neighborhood planning process.”
Epstein said he was concerned about the legality of imposing conditions on the rezone, which the board considered but dropped, as well as wastewater. The town of Jackson said it wouldn’t allow connection to the sewer system if the commission approved a rezone application before formal connection agreements for the property were recorded. Those agreements were not finalized before the final hearing on the proposal, and some sitting commissioners felt the private wastewater solution the family proposed left open questions.
“In good faith to the town we needed to go through this planning process as well, because they are the linchpin to the sewage system,” Epstein said. “So we need the town partnership.”
Beckwith, who has called for a moratorium on new hotel and motel development and for limiting the number of daily visitors to Grand Teton National Park, tangled with Long over wastewater. The former said he was concerned about the potential for elevated nitrate levels in northern South Park and worried what the cost would be if an intervention was required there, as it has been in Hoback, where rising nitrate levels have at times kept people from drinking their tap water.
“My question for you is: How can you push for this immediate development, understanding the long-term implications for the health of our residents and the financial well-being of our community if the EPA intervenes and we have to fix this problem?” Beckwith said.
Long argued that the community has to learn to “walk and chew gum” and fretted that the Gills may not come back to the table. Nikki Gill told commissioners in September that the proposal they later shot down was their only chance to work with her family.
“People within our community think that we can push these opportunities down the road, and they’re going to be there for us,” Long said. “What we heard loud and clear from the Gill family is that that’s not the case.”