Northern South Park

After months of meeting about the growth management process, comprehensive plan conversations have largely focused on northern South Park. Elected officials weighed in on whether they thought a Gill proposal to build housing was leading the process, and whether other issues were getting appropriate attention.

Some are wondering what’s guiding what as the Gill housing proposal looms large over the process of updating the town and county’s comprehensive plan.

“Right now I think we are letting the tail wag the dog,” Commissioner Luther Propst said. “We’re spending a disproportionate amount of attention on one individual parcel and there is still so much for the community and elected officials to consider about the comp plan update generally.”

Commissioner Greg Epstein, perhaps the most vocal champion of speeding up planning for northern South Park — and the Gill proposal — said that wasn’t the case.

In his mind he’s continuing to advocate for developing the area, something he said he’s championed since the Hog Island development was struck down a year ago.

“It definitely isn’t the tail wagging the dog,” he said. “I’ve been talking about developing northern South Park since my first year on the commission. The Gill proposal wasn’t a thing yet.”

In recent weeks the Gills’ proposal to develop the northwest corner of the Jackson Hole Hereford Ranch has been a constant discussion during the growth management process, which is how the community is updating the 2012 Teton County/Jackson Comprehensive Plan to guide growth. The family has submitted an application to rezone upwards of 70 acres to build just over 300 homes, 65% of which would be deed restricted in some way for the local workforce.

The growth management process has been going on for about two years and, before COVID-19, the update was approaching the finish line.

At a joint meeting earlier this month, commissioners were set to vote on the update, but the virus and concerns about public participation derailed the plan. Backlash also ensued when the draft was released without showing changes. Elected officials changed the focus of the May meeting to presenting the update rather than giving it a final yea or nay.

But after planning staff finished presenting the changes at that meeting, conversation swung to joint planning northern South Park and the Gill proposal. The same happened Monday.

Jackson Councilor Arne Jorgensen acknowledged the last few meetings have been focused on northern South Park, but said there’s been much more to the process, which has lasted about two years.

“The last few meetings we’ve had are a very small portion of the total discussions around this comp plan update,” he said. “We’ve had many, many, many meetings and discussions.”

In a nonbinding straw poll Monday, the Town Council and the Teton County Board of County Commissioners agreed to plan the area jointly. They also agreed to rewrite language in the comprehensive plan to explicitly state that developing northern South Park had been determined as necessary in the growth management process, a requirement in the 2012 comprehensive plan.

In a series of subsequent polls, which failed, elected officials also tangled with changing language in the same few paragraphs about northern South Park they’ve been debating for weeks.

The Gill family reacted strongly to the flurry of proposals.

“A rush to change the rules should be seen for exactly what it is — trying to impede a private sector housing solution,” Gill spokeswoman Liz Brimmer wrote the News&Guide in an email. “We are concerned that all of this could severely impact the community’s ability to house health care workers, first responders and those in our community served by [Habitat for Humanity of the Greater Teton Area].”

Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance Community Planning Manager Brooke Sausser didn’t think the failed changes were significant but saw another issue.

“The straw polls are dangerous,” she said. “They can have profound impact.”

Rich Bloom, a local development watchdog, was glad the second set of polls didn’t succeed.

“If they had, I think huge segments of the community would feel that would disrespect the process,” Bloom said. “To make fundamental shifts to the most sensitive area without true community revisiting would have been a slap in the face to all that community engagement.”

He also questioned the impetus for the slate of last minute changes, repeating Commissioner Propst’s sentiment almost exactly.

“What this has been feeling like a little bit for me is the tail wagging the dog,” Bloom said.

The Gill family did not respond directly to a question asking whether they thought their proposal was dictating the terms of the larger comprehensive plan discussion.

Elected officials’ views on whether the project was leading the planning were mixed.

“I would say to a certain extent that’s happening, but it’s also not to be unexpected,” Jorgensen said. “We don’t live in an idealized world where the world stops around us while we move forward with planning.”

In his mind the important thing is making sure that designating northern South Park an appropriate place for housing “plays out in a way that ensures the community vision is carried out.”

Councilor Jim Stanford said he felt like two conversations are “playing out at the same time.”

“Most of us are having a conversation about a thorough neighborhood plan,” he said, “but there’s at least one person, maybe two people, in [Epstein’s] own words, who are interested in ‘expediting’ the private landowners’ proposal as much as possible.”

On Monday Epstein said northern South Park was “ready for development” and that he was interested in the “best, most expedited way we can make that happen.”

The commissioner maintained Tuesday that his stance on the long-debated area would hold independent of the Gills’ proposal.

Like Jorgensen, Commissioner Mark Newcomb and Councilor Jonathan Schechter didn’t see the tail- wagging question in black and white. Both saw the proposal as a catalyst for declaring northern South Park ready for development.

“I think the town and the county were ready to explicitly say we’re closer to the point where we need to develop northern South Park,” Newcomb said, “but what the application did is force the discussion to say that ‘No, we are ready. It is deemed necessary.’”

And for the most part, elected officials agreed the recent focus on northern South Park wouldn’t detract from conversations about the rest of the comprehensive plan update.

“I think those other areas were given a fair look pretty early in the process,” Newcomb said.

Stanford put it this way: “I’m not worried about those topics getting short shrift. We’ll get to them in turn.”

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

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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