Uneasy with the county’s decision to scrap a controversial housing project near the fairgrounds, one elected official asked to switch his vote. Before he had the chance he changed his mind again.
Commissioner Greg Epstein was torn between two compelling arguments: Teton County desperately needs affordable housing, but if that housing is too dense it could disrupt neighborhoods, in turn jeopardizing support for the affordable housing program in general. When the time came to vote he settled on a milder course.
“We can’t just come in there with a heavy fist,” Epstein said. “I’m just looking at what’s a good compromise to keep the people in the neighborhood from being completely upset but we still get some housing.”
The Town Council and Board of County Commissioners both considered the high-density option for 440 W. Kelly Ave. — which would erect a three-story, 16-unit complex in a neighborhood of mostly single-story homes — at a joint meeting July 23. The proposal drew fierce opposition from neighbors who argued it would ruin the character of their block.
Top housing officials supported that plan, and town councilors approved it 3 to 2. But the commissioners nullified that vote when they rejected it 3 to 2, with Commissioners Luther Propst, Mark Barron and Epstein voting against and Natalia Macker and Mark Newcomb voting in favor.
At that point, with the 16-unit design off the table, officials planned to meet again in coming weeks to consider other options. Some suggested pursuing 12 units or fewer, though others said they would rather sell the government-owned property than settle for anything smaller than 16.
Then, on Monday, Epstein called for a revote, casting the project back into uncertainty.
He said he had “thought about it all weekend,” and decided that if the town and county don’t take on the project, private developers may not either, instead avoiding it out of fear of public criticism.
He also concluded that county officials should not interfere in housing projects within town limits, governed by town zoning. At the time, he said, he was seriously considering the 16-unit proposal.
But by the meeting the next day, after “a lot of emails and texts and phone calls” from citizens on both sides of the debate, he was having second thoughts about maximizing housing on the site. Instead of changing his vote he reiterated his initial support for a smaller development.
“Sixteen units might be too many,” he said, “but I do think we need to move forward and get something in there.”
In short, the political lines haven’t moved. Epstein and his colleagues remain firm in their original decisions. Commissioner Mark Newcomb said he would not vote to scale back the proposal. Every time officials reduce the number of units in a project, he said, that many people are unable to secure housing.
“It wouldn’t even be making up for the expansion of jobs that’s going on,” he said. “It wouldn’t even be making up for providing homes for folks who are already living outside of the community that need a place to live.”
On Monday, just before Epstein asked for the revote, several community members urged the commissioners to rethink their decision. They said elected officials should weigh not only the opposition of the neighbors but also the critical housing needs of local workers.
“Change is hard, and disrupting the status quo inevitably will ruffle some feathers,” Emily Cohen said. “Those property owners are people who already have security, who in many cases are retired and have the time to attend a hearing in the middle of a workday. You did not hear the voices of working people like myself, though that doesn’t mean we aren’t paying attention.”
John Stennis, an associate with GYDE Architects and a former town planning commissioner, emailed the commissioners ahead of their reconsideration hearing, seconding Cohen’s comments and asking the opposition to switch their votes.
“The ‘not in my back yard’ mentality runs deep, and represents a very vocal but not necessarily large part of our community,” he wrote. “If we truly care about workforce housing and not just paying it lip service, it’s time to ‘ruffle some feathers.’”
But the neighbors aren’t budging. They argue that although Teton County needs more homes for its workforce, those homes don’t belong on West Kelly in such magnitude. They have said they would accept a design with fewer units.
“I don’t think it’s an either/or,” Perri Stern said of the conflict between workforce housing and community character. “The neighbors are very committed to having something built on that site. But a project that is in context with the neighborhood, that is responsive to neighbors’ concerns, would be appropriate to that site.”
The town and county will schedule another joint meeting to consider the future of 440 W. Kelly, though it seems 16 units is unlikely.