As a prominent ranching family pursues a colossal housing development in northern South Park the first public meeting on the subject was simply supposed to lay out the process for exploring that project.
Instead it turned into a showdown between planners and developers. After the county’s senior planner explained to elected officials why she and her colleagues advise against building hundreds of units of housing at the southern edge of town the meeting ended with the family’s attorney declaring them a “runaway staff with their own no-growth agenda.”
The proposal comes from the sixth-generation Gill family, which owns a large chunk of South Park and operates the Jackson Hole Hereford Ranch there.
They’ve raised the stakes by offering two paths to developing the land: one leads to nearly 500 7,500-square-foot lots, which could make a big difference in the community’s dire shortage of housing for local workers; the other to just 83 12,000-square-foot lots, many of which would likely fall to second-home owners.
Though the Gills have said they prefer the first option, that level of density will require a dramatic, and perhaps politically fraught, upzone. If they aren’t given the upzone — and they’ve hinted they don’t want to wait forever — they can proceed with the second option at any point.
“We are proposing land to enable real housing solutions, sooner rather than later,” Nikki Gill said. “It is an example of how the private sector can innovate significant and meaningful solutions.”
The planners’ opposition rests on the dictates of the Comprehensive Plan, the document that outlines the general principles of how and where development should occur in Teton County.
Though the plan does identify northern South Park as a possible site for housing, Long-range Planner Kristi Malone said it also states the first priority should be to increase density in developed areas rather than spread into this 100 acres of rural land.
“Really, if we look at the text in the Comp Plan for that subarea,” she said, “it kind of answers all the questions that we have.”
Malone also argued it’s “close-minded” to consider only these two development options. If northern South Park were to be developed, she said, it should begin with an extensive master planning process that “comprehensively addresses that entire subarea,” not a one-off rezone for a single project. Town and county officials recently voted to have their staffs prepare this master plan.
On the other side, however, is Susan Johnson, the former county planning manager, who is now working with the Gills. Based on her own assessment of the Comprehensive Plan, the need for housing at northern South Park has “been triggered by several known metrics,” and the project doesn’t require a master plan.
“There is a path forward without entering into a yearslong master planning process for northern South Park,” Johnson said in a statement Tuesday.
Amberley Baker, the Gill family’s attorney, said county planners are trying to “further delay and negatively impact housing solutions for our community.” She said the format of Monday’s meeting differed from a similar one last month, and from what county staff told the development team to expect.
“The impact of this is to stifle our ability to respond to staff’s concerns,” she said.
In the statement released Tuesday Gill said, “Our primary concern is that this idea of innovative housing gets a fair process. We hope the community and media ask for improved governmental transparency.”
Liz Brimmer, another representative of the Gill family, said they’ve seen a “robust response from entities that need in-valley housing,” indicating potential partnerships to house the employees of major Jackson Hole businesses and organizations.
St. John’s Health CEO Paul Beaupre wrote in a letter to commissioners that he expects the hospital will need 160 housing units in Teton County in the next three years. He is “working with the family to ensure the units will be deed restricted and priced in a fashion to meet the needs of the hospital, our first responders, our teachers.”
“I realize that this will be a heavy lift,” Beaupre wrote. “However this may be the last opportunity to consider a large enough development within Teton County to meet the needs of many of the large year-round employers in this community.”
Despite their planners’ hesitancy, elected officials seemed mostly excited at the prospect of developing the largest housing project in Teton County’s history. Some feared the opportunity could slip away and be replaced by the second option to build just 83 units.
Commissioner Greg Epstein said they should figure out how to “get to option one the quickest,” while Commissioner Mark Barron said he “would like to challenge ourselves to move this along.”
But for some the allure was tempered by questions of how affordable the homes would be. The Gills have pledged 30 to 40 units to Habitat for Humanity, preserving them for workers who make less than 80% of Teton County’s median income. That leaves about 450 units.
It’s unclear what percentage would be deed-restricted for local workers, and what percentage would be sold at market rate with no restrictions on who can buy them. When Commissioner Mark Newcomb asked Brimmer about this at Monday’s meeting, she said, “There will be a balance, no doubt. We don’t know the exact numbers right now.”
Because of caps on lot and floor-area square footage — 7,500 and 2,850 square feet, respectively — the family has argued the remaining lots would be well suited for people who do 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.
But the uncertainty leaves some wary. Skye Schell, executive director of the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, urged the developers to place deed restrictions on most of the homes. He also called for conservation easements on the land south of the project, to prevent further sprawl in South Park.
“What we’ve heard so far is almost entirely a large market-rate development on open space and ranchland,” he said. “We hope the developers will be open to creative ideas.”
On that note, at least, the planners agree. The only reason to go against the Comprehensive Plan is to achieve the community’s housing goals — to that end, the homes must be within the reach of local workers.
“If we’re opening up this area for development, for the purpose of reaching that quality of life target for 65% of workforce housed locally,” Malone said, “we want to make sure that’s actually what’s going to happen.”