Hoback Junction

Hoback Junction has been ground zero for drinking water pollution issues in Jackson Hole, and dangerous levels of nitrates have been found in several Hoback areas. Water quality issues like those in Hoback have become a central point in the ongoing process of updating the 2012 Jackson/Teton County Comprehensive Plan.

After months of debate, a draft update to the 2012 Jackson/Teton Comprehensive Plan is on its way to elected officials for a final review where water quality is sure to be top of mind.

After two, two-hour-plus meetings throughout September, the Teton County and town of Jackson planning commissions have recommended the Teton County Board of County Commissioners and Jackson Town Council approve the draft update.

But recommendations came with changes running the gamut from adding language on water quality to altering verbiage that would have encouraged the town and county to collect data on setting a minimum wage as a housing mitigation strategy.

The 2012 Jackson/Teton County Comprehensive Plan is a vision document against which developers, planners, and elected officials evaluate land-use decisions. The plan provides a framework that the town and county use to develop binding land development regulations.

The update has been in progress for over a year as town and county staff and elected officials have followed the framework of the “growth management program,” a study triggered by a 5% increase in building permit activity since 2012. That’s led the public and public officials to recommend updates to the 400-plus page document chapter by chapter.

The most debated issue during the two planning commission meetings was the health of Jackson Hole’s waterways, some of which have been polluted for almost a decade.

“We have substitutes for fossil fuels,” County Planning Commissioner Susan Lurie said Monday, arguing for the importance of water quality in Jackson Hole. “There is no substitute for water.”

In 2013, a U.S. Geological Survey study detected nitrates, an agriculture-associated pollutant that can be hazardous to human and ecosystem health, and chlorophyll in Fish Creek. Nitrates have more recently reached concerning heights in the Hoback area, leading residents to avoid drinking well water. Fish Creek and another prized Jackson Hole stream, Flat Creek, have also been polluted by E. coli, and levels of ammonia, a byproduct of urine, have climbed to near what’s expected in untreated sewage at the town of Jackson’s wastewater treatment plant.

Concerns about the health of Jackson’s waterways prompted two letters to the town and county planning commissions: one from a slate of high-level town and county employees, including Teton County Director of Public Works Heather Overholser, and another from the Wyoming Outdoor Council, Protect Our Water Jackson Hole and the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance. Both letters recommended changes to the draft comp plan update, which the planning commissions decided to incorporate by way of reference.

“We appreciate the recognition by town and county staff of the need to better protect ground and surface waters,” the three advocacy groups wrote in their letter, “but as currently drafted the plan falls far short of achieving the stated goal of enhancing water quality.”

The town and county planning commissions debated how best to incorporate those comments but settled on including the edits suggested by the town and county employees, and the edits suggested by the three advocacy groups that were consistent with those recommendations.

But they also went a step further, suggesting a strategy that could – if the Town Council and Teton Board of County Commissioners approve the update – see the town and county create a “community-wide comprehensive water quality enhancement plan.”

Lurie advocated most forcefully for including stronger language around water quality in the update, and at times the conversation shifted toward discussion of regulation.

But Deputy County Attorney Keith Gingery cautioned that some water quality-focused efforts were already underway — new regulations being created for small wastewater facilities is one, and the Teton District Board of Health’s investigation of regulations for public water systems is another. He reminded planning commissioners that the Comprehensive Plan is a vision document, not a regulatory tome like the land development regulations it helps elected officials create.

“Not everything has to be solved by land development regulations,” Gingery said. “There’s other boards within the county that are working on it.”

The language around the water quality enhancement plan stayed in, as did the language recommending incorporating the two water-quality focused letters.

The planning commissions also mulled a number of other topics.

Planning for a potential move of the Teton County Fairgrounds, which has been suggested as a way to create more workforce housing, was one. Ditto making sure that the town and county’s housing mitigation rates are consistent with state law, a concern since the Wyoming Legislature has proposed bills intended to eliminate the program. The commissions also discussed moving language away from collecting data to set a minimum wage as a housing mitigation alternative toward collecting data for a more general wage study.

One of the most-discussed items toward the end of the night Monday was changing the character district on a parcel of land just north of Hoback Junction known as the Ross Plateau.

Teton County Planning Commissioner Kasey Mateosky was concerned that nobody had notified the family that owns the land that the change could be coming and asked to change that. Glen Esnard, the chair of the county planning commission, agreed.

“I have a problem changing the designation of property — somebody’s privately owned land — without notice to them,” Esnard said.

The Town Council and county commissioners are set to review the changes to the draft comp plan update in the first week of October.

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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