After a nearly half-year impasse, Jackson town officials may finally move ahead with a controversial housing project near the rodeo grounds.
The Town Council and Teton County Board of County Commissioners have struggled since July to agree on the ideal amount of workforce housing to build at the site of 440 W. Kelly Ave., which they own jointly. Without consensus from both governing bodies the project has remained in limbo.
Then, on Monday, town and county officials agreed to transfer ownership of the West Kelly lot to the town. That move is likely to lead to the development of a 16-unit apartment complex, potentially bringing closure after five months of frustration and uncertainty for all involved.
Some elected officials said the town and county should strive for compromise rather than disengagement. But for the first time in the West Kelly saga, a majority on each board agreed on something: It makes sense to let the town handle housing in its own jurisdiction, and likewise for the county.
“I wouldn’t describe it as a divorce,” Mayor Pete Muldoon said. “I would describe it as us looking toward our own areas of expertise.”
He and others in his camp have made the case that it isn’t the county’s place to negate the town’s decisions regarding zoning within Jackson limits. In a major rezone last summer, West Kelly and its surroundings were slated for much higher housing density, to the dismay of many who live in the vicinity.
In the first vote on the West Kelly project, in July, the council approved plans for 16 units in a neighborhood of predominantly single-family homes. But amid fierce opposition from a coalition of neighbors who said that such a drastic increase would ruin the character of the area, the commissioners blocked that version of the project.
Those who rejected it advocated something more amenable to the neighbors and, therefore, more politically viable. Proposals arose for 12 units or perhaps even fewer. But those ideas failed one by one, as the officials who favored a denser project refused to sign on to any design that wouldn’t maximize housing on the property.
Since then they’ve tried over and over to reach a resolution. In October the county shut down what seemed to be the only remaining option: give the town full control of the project’s future. But Commissioner Mark Newcomb, who originally voted against that, later asked to reconsider his vote. After he flipped his position Monday the commissioners had the numbers to transfer ownership of 440 W. Kelly to the town.
Still, not everyone liked the idea, with some saying it sets a poor precedent for managing disagreements between the town and county. Commissioner Luther Propst suggested that housing could be only the first domino, followed by divergence in other areas, like transportation.
“It creates this paradigm,” he said, “where if we’re not getting along we’re going to take our marbles and go home.”
Councilor Jim Stanford, one of the two dissenters on the town side, agreed that a collaborative approach is essential to good governance. As for the alternative, he said, “I think it’s a lousy idea.”
“Jackson is part of Teton County,” Stanford said. “I think our constituents expect us to work together. That’s not always easy, but sometimes it results in good policy.”
Commissioner Mark Barron, who also opposed the transfer of ownership, went one step further in saying that such policymaking is inherently laborious, and rightfully so.
“These decisions should be difficult,” Barron said. “They should be hard-fought.”
But those in favor of independent decisions countered that the fruit of the town and county’s cooperation, at least so far, has been precisely no housing. Muldoon said that of the four possible outcomes in any joint decision — no-no, no-yes, yes-no, yes-yes — only one results in action.
“I don’t know that that’s a great way to move forward,” he said. “Which isn’t a knock on anybody. It’s a process issue.”
The corollary of the town receiving authority over West Kelly is the county receiving authority over another languishing property on Highway 390. As a jointly owned site it follows that 3590 North Kennel Lane, commonly known as the Rains property, should be left to the commissioners’ discretion.
The 5-acre parcel has been undeveloped since it was purchased in 2007. Though most housing efforts are focused on building in town, some argue that, with a rezone for higher density, the lot would be ideal for as many as 80 housing units, especially considering it is right next to the Aspens.
But so far officials have not committed to rezoning, and in July the town and county decided to list it for sale at $2.2 million. In Monday’s meeting, after the West Kelly discussion, they considered an offer to purchase the property for $800,000 less than that.
Phelps Swift, a real estate attorney representing the Weiss family, which made the offer, said that based on their market analysis the listing price was inflated.
Considering the earlier vote to make separate decisions on West Kelly, the town and county agreed to postpone a decision on the Rains property, because it will likely fall to the county alone.