It will take a few more weeks before all is said and done with a Gill family proposal to build hundreds of homes on ranch land in northern South Park.
The Teton County Board of County Commissioners voted 5-0 Tuesday to delay a decision on the family’s request to upzone 74 acres of their Jackson Hole Hereford Ranch.
The Gill family wants to develop up to 312 lots on the property. The rezone has been hotly debated for months. Some community members see the rezone as paving the way for workforce housing while others contend a neighborhood plan must be finished first to guarantee that the homes are ultimately affordable for workers.
Planning Director Chris Neubecker and the Teton County Planning Commission have both recommended that the County Commission, which has final say, deny the upzone to complete a neighborhood plan before increasing the density of development allowed.
In contrast to the first Planning Commission hearing, when the recommending body heard from many people requesting denial, the 20-some people at Tuesday’s hearing offered more support for the Gill’s proposed development. Habitat for Humanity of the Greater Teton Area, which would receive 30 or 40 of the 312 lots as a gift, rallied five employees and board members to speak up for approving the rezone.
“If we can all agree that there is a crisis here,” Executive Director Kris Greenville said, “why wait or slow down part of the conversation?”
Volunteer firefighter Jason Bruni likewise urged the commission to approve the rezone, comparing it to feeding the hungry. Bruni said he volunteers at the Good Samaritan Mission.
“You can give somebody a peanut butter sandwich to give them the calories they need, or you can give them a meal and help them feel like a human again,” he said. “Giving real housing to the people who live here ... is more than just putting up housing for the sake of housing. It’s making us feel like real community members for what we provide.”
Five of the 20 or so people who testified spoke against the rezone. Educator Miles Yazzolino argued that more attention needed to be given to affordability beyond the Habitat donations.
“Don’t those families beyond only the ... Habitat for Humanity recipients deserve carefully considered affordable options and a plan that will serve a representative slice of all our community?” Yazzolino asked.
The goal of the delay was to take more time to review five conditions commissioners proposed attaching to the rezone — and to decide whether moving forward with a conditional approval for the zone change was appropriate. Commissioners Mark Newcomb and Luther Propst seemed skeptical of that approach but voted to continue the conversation nonetheless.
“It seems like the board would be willing to do something with the landowner on behalf of affordable workforce housing but isn’t quite there,” Commissioner Mark Barron said toward the end of the four-hour meeting. “I think a continuance for two weeks to try to flesh out some of these issues might be helpful.”
If approved the conditions commissioners flirted with could amount to a practice dubbed conditional zoning, which is untested in Wyoming courts.
But the discussion also toed the line between that practice and another: contract zoning. Deputy County Attorney Keith Gingery said that’s not allowed.
The difference between the two, Gingery explained, is whether the board makes the decision on the conditions bilaterally in a back-and-forth with an applicant like the Gills. That would be contract zoning. If the board makes the decision unilaterally, or by themselves, that would be conditional zoning. He cautioned the board against the former after Commissioner Greg Epstein invited the family to “negotiate” earlier in the meeting.
“If you as a group, meaning the five of you, without the back and forth, think there is something that you really need to approve a zoning change, you can do what’s called conditional zoning,” Gingery said. “What you can’t do is what’s called contract zoning, where you’re going back and forth. So some of the key words to watch out for [are] words like ‘negotiate’” — that got a laugh from the room — “or ‘I’ll give you this, you give me that.’ Those are bad.”
Conditional zoning was until recently a relatively rare move for the County Commission. The practice was used twice in the 1990s and then twice in 2020.
One of the more recent occasions was when the county’s elected officials approved a zone change with a condition for Central Wyoming College’s new Jackson campus; it required the college to acquire the land before the rezone became effective.
The second came just a few weeks ago when the County Commission approved a rezone for a 7.14-acre parcel intended for a Lower Valley Energy employee housing development. One of the conditions in that case required the utility to record the county’s workforce deed restriction on 100% of the proposed lots before the rezone went into effect.
The conditions that will be considered next time the County Commission takes up the Gills’ rezone request aren’t as straightforward.
The Gills have recorded a covenant on their property requiring 65% of the lots in the proposed development to be deed restricted in some way for the local workforce.
But members of the community have criticized the covenant, lamenting that it doesn’t define who a Teton County worker is — the worry being that a lack of definition could open the properties to remote computer programmers working from Teton County for a San Francisco company, for example — and that it doesn’t reserve any land for local workers by income. The latter is something the Jackson/Teton County Housing Department and Jackson Hole Community Housing Trust frequently do with lots they develop for lower income workers.
The Gills have worked to rebut those concerns, saying that buyers of the 7,500-square-foot lots (St. John’s Health, the Housing Trust and others have been named as partners, but no documents have been signed confirming deals) will put their own, recognized deed restrictions on the properties. The Gills argue that provides flexibility for buyers.
One of the conditions commissioners proposed sought to streamline deed restrictions for people looking to buy lots individually, rather than entities like the hospital. Commissioner Epstein proposed that rule, which could require the family to record the county’s workforce deed restriction on properties purchased by individuals.
Another two conditions looked to address the lack of affordability requirements in the Gills covenant and cap the lot sizes and number of units allowed in the proposed development.
Two others came out of conversations with the Gill family over wastewater treatment — the Jackson Town Council has suggested it won’t allow connection to the sewer if a rezone application is approved before formal connection agreements for the property are recorded — and neighborhood planning.
The Gills are in discussions with a private wastewater developer as a backup on the first front. And on Tuesday their representatives proposed a condition linking the timing of the completion of transportation and infrastructure elements of the neighborhood planning effort with submission of a sketch plan, the next regulatory step required on the family’s path to breaking ground.
Though the family’s attorney, Amberley Baker, was concerned about conditional zoning in the meeting, she and Gill spokeswoman Liz Brimmer appeared to support the direction commissioners were taking after it concluded.
“We welcome this collaboration,” Baker said when the meeting wrapped up. “It’s positive.”
Asked whether they were concerned about any of the conditions proposed, Brimmer said it was “too early” to say: “I think we’re gonna think it over.”
But development watchdog Rich Bloom, one of the few people aside from the Gills and commissioners left in the meeting when it wrapped, felt the County Commission could be getting itself into “legal peril.”
“It was way too much back and forth legally with not only the applicant’s representative but their lawyer,” Bloom said. “That was contract zoning.”