For decades South Park has been a target for public and private developers seeking to turn the primarily rural area into residential and commercial space. This week a familiar family became the latest to step up, pitching its ideas for what housing there could look like.
On Monday, representatives of the Gills, a sixth-generation ranching family that owns a significant portion of South Park land, presented two paths for developing the northwest corner of the Jackson Hole Hereford Ranch. One — the Gills’ preferred option — could see up to 488 lots developed in phases. Thirty or 40 of the properties would be gifted to Habitat for Humanity of the Greater Teton Area.
“We believe the need is dire in the community for an idea like this,” Gill family representative Liz Brimmer said. “And we believe the commissioners especially are also very interested in having the opportunity to have this kind of choice.”
South Park resident Rich Bloom has been involved with planning issues for decades. Because of the area’s history of opposition to development, as well as the proposed size of the family’s preferred development, he said the project will likely “evoke spirited conversation within the public review process.”
He also expressed appreciation for the Gill family’s decision to let the public know early. The announcement came at a Monday county meeting, where representatives asked for optional, public meetings with the Teton County Board of County Commissioners to discuss both proposals.
“I think it’s commendable that they daylighted it now and started that conversation so we can work it out,” Bloom said.
The plans, as they stand, are far from final. The meetings with the board, which the Gills requested within 30 days (land development regulations require them to happen in 60), are just the first step in the lengthy public review process that is sure to ensue.
The Gill plans
The idea the Gills would prefer to pursue is one they say would tackle Teton County’s housing crisis.
After rezoning nearly 100 acres of land in the northwest corner of the Hereford Ranch to auto urban residential, that plan could see up to 488 lots developed. The family’s gift of 30 or 40 lots to Habitat for Humanity would support one demographic of workers: those who make less than 80% of Teton County’s median family income. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, that’s just over $65,000 for a two-person household.
Because of caps on lot and floor-area square footage — 7,500 and 2,850 square feet, respectively — the family argues that the remaining lots would be well suited for people who would not qualify for government affordable housing programs because they make a bit more than 120% of median family income: about $98,000 for a household of two.
“In option one, we hope you see this as a meaningful submission that is literally good at heart and needed for the community,” Brimmer said. “As commissioners you have the chance to not just vote on a good project, but a great project.”
The second proposal was presented differently: a “rather not” of sorts.
The northernmost part of the property that the Gill family owns is zoned suburban, which has a minimum lot size of 12,000 square feet. Under the current regulations that apply to that zone, the Gills have a go-ahead to develop 83 much larger lots on that property. Those larger lots would likely be more expensive and less appealing to local workers.
“The Gill family strongly believes in the axiom, ‘If you want a local community, you need locals,’” Brimmer said, which is why, she said, they’re supporting the first option.
Habitat for Humanity board member Carol Linton has been working with the Gill family on the proposal. If the rezone goes through and properties are deeded over to the nonprofit, Linton said it will likely be one of the largest gifts Habitat has received.
“I can’t even think of instances where we’ve been gifted anything close to this number of parcels,” Linton said. “Besides the fact that it’s a gigantic gift, we feel like the location is fantastic. It’s on the bike path, close to schools, close to amenities, with another dense development just to the north. Working families live in that area.”
A history of housing
With proponents fired up about the workforce-oriented option, a number of questions will still have to be answered in the plan’s review. Chief among them is how much of the land will actually be reserved for working families.
That issue has been on the table for years.
The Gill pitch is the latest in a decades-long saga of proposed developments in the South Park area. Most have been fought. Some have been shut down.
In the 2000s at least three projects met that fate. The New Neighborhood and Teton Meadows developments were both nixed. The town of Jackson’s proposed annexation of the 822-acre Hereford Ranch parcel, part of the 900-acre Porter Estate, was as well.
From the late 1980s to the mid-2000s, proponents of various controversial plans advocated annexation. Town councilors joined that pack, as well as the Gill and Lockhart families. The dynasties were co-beneficiaries of the estate until about 2010, when they split ownership.
The ultimate annexation proposal considered allowing a maximum of 1,850 residential units and 450,000 square feet of primarily commercial space to be developed across the Porter Estate. The Town Council advocated annexation and ultimately approved the measure, but voters struck it down in a 2007 referendum.
Part of the reason was concern about the availability of housing for the local workforce.
Of the 1,850 units proposed, 327 would have been reserved for employee and affordable housing. Other properties would have been a mix of townhomes and market properties. That pencils to 17.7% affordable.
Doing the math on the current Gill proposal, 30 or 40 Habitat homes out of 488 lots equals 6% to 8% affordable. No other deed-restricted parcels have yet been confirmed.
State Rep. Andy Schwartz was a Teton County commissioner when the Porter Estate proposal was being considered. At the time he said those in favor of the plan argued that the expansion of housing supply rather than deed-restricting units would be enough to keep prices affordable.
Then, as now, Schwartz was skeptical of market-based solutions’ efficacy.
“My argument was, if we’re going to talk about supply and demand, we’re still talking about a limited supply,” Schwartz said Tuesday. “The demand — you can’t calculate it. It’s international.
“Without some kind of deed restriction, it appears to me that the market knows no limit.”
The issues at hand
Aside from the properties that would be given to Habitat for Humanity, the Gill proposal makes no mention of other deed restrictions. Brimmer did, however, say that the family was interested in partnering with “other entities in the community.”
“Workforce or deed restrictions will be tailored specifically to those organizations and their needs,” she said.
In the Monday meeting, Brimmer called out St. John’s Health and the Wyoming Game and Fish Department as potential partners.
Bloom said deed restrictions will likely be one of the issues officials consider.
The question, in his mind, has to do with whether the market will be able to keep prices in a range most locals can afford: “Will these serve the workforce and be accessible to them, or will they be accessible to the second home market without deed restrictions?”
Bloom also guessed county officials and members of the public considering the plan would focus on a few other issues. One is whether the development will have a density similar to the adjacent Cottonwood Park neighborhood, something required by the Jackson/Teton County Comprehensive Plan. Others will likely include whether the Gills will conserve any of their land elsewhere, and how developers will mitigate traffic issues on High School Road.
“Overall, I think it’s an intriguing idea,” Bloom said. “It is an upzone — you’re asking for more development potential than is allowed on the land — but I think they make a compelling case.”
Commissioner Mark Newcomb said he was intrigued by the proposal. He hoped appropriate restrictions for local workers would be considered.
“This is one where you finally can’t say ‘Right idea, wrong place,’” Newcomb said. “I just don’t know if this is the right idea yet. If this is 488 lots that are going to be available to local workers and indeed are restricted to local workers, then my reaction is that this is probably the right project at the right place.”
Commissioner Luther Propst said he would likewise be focused on worker housing.
“I’ll look closely to make sure the housing they propose will be for the workforce,” Propst said. “Generally speaking, it’s a site that has significant merit for workforce housing.”
For now, Brimmer said, plans are in their infancy. The initial conversation with the board will be intended to gather feedback before presenting a formal application for one of the two proposals to the planning department.
“All we’re asking for now is just [to] begin to discuss this idea,” Brimmer said. “Then we’ll take feedback and discuss an actual formal submission. This is very preliminary.”
This version of the article has been updated to correct the name of the neighborhood north of the proposed development: Cottonwood Park. The paragraph that discusses the Gill family's target buyers also has been edited to clarify that those who make at least 120% of the county's median income are most likely to be able to afford a home there. — Ed.