Free of town constraints Monday morning, county officials countered an offer to buy a tract of West Bank land with an offer of their own: Give us $1.9 million instead of $1.4 million.
The Teton County Board of County Commissioners approved the counteroffer in a 3-2 vote with Commissioners Mark Barron and Greg Epstein opposing the move. The price is shy on two fronts: $50,000 less than the $1.95 million the county purchased the 5 acres for in 2007 and $300,000 short of the $2.2 million listing price the town and county approved for the lot in July 2019.
Commissioners Mark Newcomb and Luther Propst were interested in selling the property and finding a site where the county could develop housing faster and without the threat of litigation. But Barron and Epstein were clear: They wanted more for the parcel.
“I think we should counter the offer at $3 million and see who’s ready to come to the table,” Epstein said. “I’d rather wait to see if we can get a more serious offer or just hold out.”
Monday’s vote was the first time commissioners acted on the parcel in question — the so-called Rains property at 3590 N. Kennel Lane — on their own.
When the $2.2 million listing was approved in July, the lot was jointly administered by the town of Jackson and Teton County.
As of Jan. 6, that arrangement was no more.
The commissioners’ decision came exactly a week after the town and county agreed to give full control of the Rains lot to the county, part of a deal that ended months of gridlock between county commissioners and town councilors.
The two groups couldn’t agree how to manage two jointly owned parcels of land: the Rains property and 440 W. Kelly Ave. Both were targeted for affordable housing projects, but neither governing body was able to sway the other to its side on where and how housing should be built.
While the town and county eventually agreed on the Rains property listing, discussions continued to break down over the West Kelly issue, hinging on the number of units in the project. A coalition of neighbors argued too much density would alter the character of the area near the rodeo grounds.
Finally, in their first joint meeting of the year, the two boards agreed to transfer ownership of the Rains property to the county and the West Kelly property to the town, giving each body control of the land in its jurisdiction. Able to operate as they choose on their respective properties, the town and county now are charting different paths.
The county conundrum
The county’s Monday deliberation was short. After months of discussion in joint sessions with the town, commissioners made the decision to counter the Rains offer, which came from a Rains property neighbor, the Weiss family, in just about 15 minutes.
Commissioners got right to it after hearing from Jackson/Teton County Affordable Housing Director April Norton, who said the Rains property costs “virtually nothing” for the county to maintain but agreed the housing department could use money elsewhere. That caught Chairwoman Natalia D. Macker’s ear.
“I’m willing to counter since we could have some opportunity to utilize that funding,” she said.
Though all five had voted in favor of selling the property in discussions with the town, the $1.4 million Weiss offer was $800,000 lower than the list price, and the commissioners split.
Epstein wanted to play hardball, and Barron opposed selling the property at all since it would appreciate and cost little to maintain. Propst, Newcomb and Macker chewed over the merits of flipping the property and using the proceeds elsewhere.
Ultimately, their side won out.
After the vote, Newcomb and Propst said their decisions came down to timing. Developing the Rains property could be a drawn-out process — and involve a fight.
The town and county are updating the Jackson/Teton County Comprehensive Plan, a process that may include rezoning certain parts of the county, including the Rains property, as designated receiving areas for denser housing.
Norton has always recommended keeping it as a site for affordable housing development. She has presented designs for between 20 and 30 units, though the vacant lot is now zoned for a single-family home with a guesthouse.
“This property is right in that receiving zone,” she said. “But I also understand that it’s been a nonperforming asset for over a decade, and we’d like to get the money and use it for housing.”
Getting the changes in place to develop the lot for a housing project would take time.
“We might not be able to build housing there within a year, maybe five,” Newcomb said.
Commissioner Propst also said he had been “promised that there’s going to be litigation” if officials move ahead with a Rains development.
“With the delays and oppositions there,” Propst said, “if we can get a fair price for the property, do we want to build houses or do we want to fight for years?”
With congestion on Moose-Wilson Road also on their minds, Propst and Newcomb suggested taking the money and running to pursue development elsewhere in the county. They said land off High School Road, Stilson and in town — areas close to public transit, grocery stores and other services — would be appealing.
Though the timing on closing a sale and chasing land elsewhere was uncertain, Newcomb was optimistic.
“If we could sell it tomorrow for $1.7 million” — a sum in line with the lower amount Newcomb originally proposed as a counter — “and pivot and buy land with that $1.7 million dollars within two to four months,” he said, “we could possibly be building housing in a year.”
Town revisits West Kelly
As the county goes its own way on the Rains property, the town will do the same on West Kelly, potentially pursuing the dense housing project it would have approved months ago if not for county opposition.
In July a majority of the Town Council approved a 16-unit design on the grounds that the need for affordable housing is too desperate not to maximize development, especially in town, which the comp plan targets as most desirable because it’s close to jobs and services. But many who live near the site condemned these plans, saying anything on that scale would pose too much of a disturbance to the neighborhood.
The commissioners agreed, voting against 16 units. They remained open to a smaller project, with ideas pitched for everything from six to 12 units, but the councilors wouldn’t go lower, again citing need.
Now that the town can do as it pleases, the councilors will revisit West Kelly at a workshop at 3 p.m. Jan. 28, though it’s still unclear what they’ll decide. Norton said the original developers will be there to present again the 12- and 16-unit designs they proposed earlier this year. The dissatisfied neighbors can also be expected.
“We’ll bring those back to them to remind them of what they’re looking at,” Norton said.