A Wyoming legislative committee unanimously advanced a bill that would prevent municipalities from doing what advocates call “zoning by sewer.” But critics called the legislation premature.

Senate File 157 is an outgrowth of the Gill family’s fight to develop 26 acres of its property in northern South Park. The bill would prohibit municipalities from conditioning access to public infrastructure like sewer lines on deed restrictions that “restrict uses” zoning otherwise allows.

“SF 157 is in your committee today because private property rights are threatened by what I would call sewer pipe overreach,” Nikki Gill said Tuesday, addressing the Wyoming House Agriculture, State and Public Lands and Water Resources Committee.

But critics of Senate File 157 say it’s getting ahead of itself — and that a decision in the local process that has the landowning family concerned has yet to be reached.

“Senate File 157 is a bill addressing a problem that does not exist, and is based on fear, not fact,” Mayor Hailey Morton Levinson told legislators. “The bill’s advocates are afraid that the Jackson Town Council might deny their application for a water and sewer hookup.”

Gill said the Town Council has “delayed and muddied a simple request” for such connection — an issue that animated recent debate about her family’s proposal to develop its 26 acres of “suburban” zoned land.

While the Gills say they have a “decades-old legal right” to develop that acreage because the zoning regulating use on the land has been in place since the ’90s, critics of the proposal have lambasted the 84 units the development could deliver to northern South Park.

The market-rate homes the family has proposed have been derided as unaffordable “mini mansions” in part because, amid a booming real estate market leaving homes out of reach for Teton County workers, they wouldn’t keep prices down or reserve occupancy for locals.

Gill, in her Monday testimony, chalked up the Town Council’s delay in granting her family a connection to municipal sewer and water to disdain for the housing type proposed.

“They are putting us over a barrel because they do not like the fact we can develop single-family homes on our land,” Gill said.

Morton Levinson in turn asked legislators to “give our community and local government system a chance before passing a bill to address a fear, rather than a problem.”

The Teton County Board of County Commissioners approved a conceptual sketch plan for the development in early March. It came with 12 conditions: One, which the family agreed to, would require it to obtain a connection agreement from the town.

Some town councilors have said they would like to see community “benefit” in a development connected to town infrastructure. And the council wrote a letter in December that was critical of the proposal, and went on to say that the board has “sole discretion” over sewer connections.

Town councilors, county commissioners, the Gills and critics of the proposed development all agree that connecting it to public utilities is best for the environment. And the Town Council, as Morton Levinson said, has not yet made a formal decision on whether to allow the development to connect.

The mayor said that decision should be reached on May 3.

But Nikki Gill and town officials gave conflicting testimony Monday as to how long the process for considering the sewer hookup has taken. Gill said her family “submitted a request for sewer hookup” in October. Town Administrator Larry Pardee said they submitted a request in January.

The News&Guide was not able to verify the exact timeline by press time Tuesday.

Legislators spent the morning trying to decide whether, by advancing the bill, they would be using the Legislature to resolve a local dispute, thereby taking on a role similar to the courts.

“We got a court system set up, but we’re not using it. We’re just injecting more laws on top of more laws,” Rep. Bill Fortner, R-Campbell, said at the beginning of the Tuesday morning hearing. “And to me that’s disturbing because we got a process in place already.”

But testimony from Nikki Gill, property rights attorney Harriet Hageman and various lobbyists convinced Fortner and other representatives that the issue was worthy of the Legislature. By the end of the two-hour-plus hearing they came around to thinking that municipalities using connection to a public utility as leverage to achieve another policy goal was an issue for property rights statewide.

Hagemen told legislators that the bill was a “fairly elegant clarification to existing law,” which she argued cements “zoning as the only mechanism by which government has the authority to control land use in the state of Wyoming.”

Gill attorney Amberley Baker backed that up in an email to the News&Guide. She said municipalities were not allowed to “zone by sewer” — and that Senate File 157 just clarifies that.

“It is not a bill that changes a law,” she wrote. “It takes no power away from towns and cities because towns and cities do not have the authority to zone by sewer connection.”

Town Councilor Arne Jorgensen said in March that the dispute is not about zoning, arguing in favor of a letter the Jackson Town Council sent to oppose the bill. Town Councilor Jim Rooks voted against sending the letter because he didn’t support its language.

“We’re not talking about zoning,” Jorgensen said. “This is not a discussion about zoning. It’s simply a discussion about managing our utility.”

Reps. Andy Schwartz, D-Teton, and Mike Yin, D-Jackson, both testified against the bill Tuesday. Schwartz worried that the legislation may have unintended consequences, and gave the Gregory Lane industrial zone in Jackson as an example.

“If an applicant comes in and wants to use either an excessive amount of water beyond what the city has talked about, or put effluent into the sewer system that is beyond the capacity of their system to handle, [the town] can limit that,” Schwartz said. “Whether or not that falls into the category of deed restrictions or strictly a condition of usage, I’m not 100% sure. But I think this is not something we would want to restrict a municipality from being able to do.”

He argued for caution, especially because “deed restrictions” have such importance in regard to Teton County’s housing policy. They are a legal mechanism by which the Jackson/Teton County Housing Department reserves housing for local workers.

Yin likewise worried about when the Legislature was intervening.

“When we intervene in the middle of the process where we haven’t had a negative outcome necessarily yet, we’re putting a thumb on the scale for one side or the other before the process has even finished taking place,” he said. “And that’s my worry.”

But those arguments didn’t sway the House Agriculture Committee.

Neither did Morton Levinson’s assertion that Jackson has “never denied a water or sewer hookup request” and that she would likely vote for the connection.

The House Agriculture Committee voted unanimously to advance the bill, which will now proceed to the floor for debate. The Wyoming Senate already passed it 22-8.

Contact Billy Arnold at 732-7063 or barnold@jhnewsandguide.comB

Teton County Reporter

Previously the Scene editor, Billy Arnold made the switch to the county beat where he's interested in exploring Teton County as a model for the rest of the West. When he can, he still writes about art, music and whatever else suits his fancy.

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