Opticos Design Inc. will be the consultant facilitating the neighborhood planning process in northern South Park. But getting here has not been without controversy.
The decision has been months in the making. The Jackson Town Council and Teton County Board of County Commissioners debated first whether developing northern South Park was appropriate at all and then who should take the lead on planning the area. Those conversations largely came after the Gill family announced their interest in rezoning and developing 74 acres of their property in the area for a 65% deed restricted housing development. The county commissioners shot down that proposal in September, opting for planning the area first. And, now, with the consultant under contract, that process is beginning.
“I really want to recognize those commissioners and councilors who did guide us to this direction of recognizing that it’s time to develop northern South Park,” Commissioner Mark Newcomb said on Nov. 2.
That’s when the elected boards first gave staff the policy direction to bring Opticos under contract with Teton County, which will lead the effort.
“I know that I didn’t always vote for that, but we’re here now,” Newcomb said. “I think what lies ahead is very exciting. And so I’m very happy with Opticos and will certainly support this motion.”
But the conversation did not stop there. In the subsequent two weeks, Teton County Planning Director Chris Neubecker has defended his recommendation to hire Opticos. The county commissioners stayed the course Tuesday, ultimately approving a $400,000 contract with the California-based design firm.
The commissioners’ decision came amid the Gill family’s claims of bias on the part of an Opticos subcontractor, Jackson resident Michael Stern and his urban and landscape design firm MAS Places.
Opticos was one of 13 firms that applied for the job and was among the three highest-scoring finalists town and county staff and appointees interviewed.
Neubecker, along with a team of four other interviewers, recommended Opticos because of its team’s strengths in graphics, community engagement, financial modeling and residential design. The firm is known for championing what’s referred to as “missing middle housing,” a diverse housing mix at scale with single-family homes that’s intended to support walkability, local retail, public transit and a range of affordability.
The firm was recommended above Logan Simpson, a Mountain West-based consultant that took part in the comp plan update, because of the benefits Neubecker said might come from a firm with fresh eyes.
Opticos also outperformed Miami-based DPZ Partners LLC, the other finalist, because, Neubecker said, the interview went poorly and reviewers were concerned about how DPZ’s past work with Disney and beachside resorts in Florida would sit with Teton County residents.
But the Gills cried foul after the Nov. 2 vote, arguing that including Stern as a subconsultant amounted to bias.
Attorney Amberley Baker, who represents the Gills, sent a letter to the Town Council and County Commission citing Stern’s former role as a Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance board member and a recent incident in which Jessica Gill called the sheriff to report Stern as he was taking pictures from her driveway as evidence of prejudice.
“How can I continue to advise the Gill Family to stay the course, participate in your neighborhood planning effort, agree to join the steering committee and ultimately trust your process?” Baker wrote. “You’ve failed them when it comes to fairness and transparency by overlooking the fact that your consultant will be guided by a Conservation Alliance director.”
Baker, Nikki Gill and Jessica Gill did not respond to requests for comment.
Michael Stern and the Conservation Alliance said they weren’t biased against the Gills. The Conservation Alliance did oppose the family’s rezone request, calling instead for a neighborhood plan in the area.
Executive Director Skye Schell argued that was different from anti-Gill sentiment, and said the Conservation Alliance often thanked the Gills for being “great stewards of the land” in public comment: “It’s our job to stand up for community values, against proposals that we see as harmful. That’s what we’ve been doing for 40 years. But opposing problematic ideas doesn’t mean that we’re antagonizing people.”
Stern said he thought it “important for this town and this community to have a great plan for northern South Park.
“I don’t accept their characterization of me as biased,” he told the News&Guide. “If I were to be on the consulting team I would step away from the board of the Alliance.”
Responding to Baker’s second charge, Stern said he was taking photos of northern South Park — where the Gills and Lockharts own the majority of the land — from across the road to supplement Opticos’ application.
Teton County Sheriff Matt Carr said the event was a “blip” in his records and did not escalate to a police report or a trespass. Deputies contacted both parties, the sheriff said, Stern apologized for the “misunderstanding” and making the family uncomfortable, and deleted his pictures.
Stern, however, was withdrawn from the consulting team, according to Neubecker. Dan Parolek, Opticos’ founding principal, did not respond to comment by press time.
Stern has also resigned from the Conservation Alliance’s board.
But with the county commissioners’ vote in the affirmative Tuesday, the planning process for northern South Park will continue.