After the umpteenth failed compromise on affordable housing, the fate of a controversial project isn’t the only thing in limbo — the very bond between the town and county also seems to be fraying.
The latest meeting on 440 W. Kelly, like the previous five, yielded no progress Monday. What’s more, by the end, several town councilors and county commissioners began to openly question the viability of their relationship.
“This smells of flirting with divorce,” Commissioner Mark Barron said, forecasting the potential dissolution of the joint housing department the town and county run together.
Throughout an hourlong discussion of how to handle the housing project — which has thwarted every attempt at resolution in recent months — the tension in the room reached a fever pitch rarely seen in meetings of the region’s two governing bodies, with some officials sarcastically mocking each other.
But what finally triggered mentions of separation was the suggestion that the town take ownership of the jointly owned property in question, essentially shutting the county out of the decision. The county, for its part, would take full control of another languishing property in its own jurisdiction.
Some saw it as symbolic not just of this project, but of the town and county’s ability to cooperate in any meaningful way. Councilor Arne Jorgensen said he approved of transferring ownership of 440 W. Kelly but feared the broader implications of this “back door” approach to solving disagreements.
“What I’m uncomfortable with is it’s an indication that we can’t get along,” he said. “Because we are one community, and that’s something I feel very strongly about.”
The suggestion came from Mayor Pete Muldoon, following an impassioned sermon on the environmental consequences of Teton County’s housing shortage. Less workforce housing means more commuters and more emissions, the leading cause of greenhouse gases in the region.
“The most effective thing that we can do here in Jackson is to reduce the number of vehicle miles traveled,” Muldoon said. “The most effective way we have of doing that is to house people locally.”
He argued giving the town free rein of the project is the only way to circumvent what seems to have become an immovable obstacle. Throughout the summer, the town and county tried again and again to find a housing design they could agree on, never succeeding.
Basically, some elected officials were adamant that the project should take full advantage of new zoning that allows for high-density housing. That would have resulted in a 16-unit apartment complex on what is now the site of a single-family home.
But some neighbors vehemently opposed that idea, saying it would ruin the character of the West Kelly area. In response, other officials advocated a design with fewer units — anywhere from six to 12 — on the premise that some housing is better than none.
Given that a majority of the Town Council favored 16 units, they ultimately questioned whether the county should have the power to override that consensus. Without the commissioners blocking the project, the councilors could have long ago settled the matter. Muldoon argued Monday that’s still the best approach and insisted that he doesn’t see it as a prelude to divorce.
“My guess,” he said, “is one of the ways to keep a good marriage together for a long time is to stay in your lane and don’t try to make decisions for the other person when you don’t need to.”
Again the majority of the council agreed, with Jonathan Schechter and Jim Stanford opposed. Stanford said he was unwilling to sacrifice his vote on housing in Teton County in exchange for absolute authority over the West Kelly project, calling it a “terrible idea.”
On the county’s side, however, a majority opposed handing over the project to the town. Only Commissioners Natalia Macker and Greg Epstein were in favor, though Mark Newcomb didn’t rule it out. He asked for more information at a future meeting.
In addition to that, elected officials asked for a report on the prospects of both bodies selling the property to a third party. Housing Director April Norton said she has already found two potential buyers. A private developer could build housing denser than anything the town and county have considered.
The neighborhood group, for its part, recently presented officials with a trio of building concepts that have its blessing. Perri Stern, who has led the coalition of density-alarmed neighbors, said there is frustration that officials haven’t seriously considered them, adding that they want to see affordable housing of a bulk and scale that they deem compatible with the surroundings.
“I’m concerned that many of the elected officials seem to be at the point of just throwing up their hands and bailing on the project,” she said. “We really do not want to see that happen.”