The town and county still can’t agree on the future of a controversial housing project, hamstringing efforts to accommodate local workers and calling into question the viability of the process officials are using to address the housing shortage.
After months of searching for solutions, the Town Council and Teton County Board of County Commissioners remain at odds over what to do with 440 W. Kelly, a property near the fairgrounds that many view as a touchstone for future housing projects.
The dispute stems from a debate over how to transition to high-density housing in a neighborhood of predominantly single-family homes.
As Councilor Jonathan Schechter put it, the 10 elected officials all want to create affordable housing, and yet are unable to reach a consensus on the best way to do so.
“Fundamentally it’s because we are trying to do something that just may be impossible to do,” he said. “That’s making me think we may need to fundamentally rethink what we’re trying to do and how we’re trying to do it.”
In July the two governing bodies, which co-own the property, were split over whether to construct a three-story, 16-unit apartment complex there.
Though the town councilors approved the plans, commissioners opposed them amid pushback from neighbors.
This time around, at a joint meeting Monday, the county — 3-2, with Commissioners Mark Newcomb and Luther Propst dissenting — agreed on a smaller, two-story building with 12 units, proposed by Commissioner Mark Barron.
But the town rejected it — 3-2, with Mayor Pete Muldoon and Councilor Jim Stanford dissenting — leaving them at a standstill once again.
Muddying the waters further, some feel the county is negating the zoning the town established for the West Kelly neighborhood last summer after a major public process. The 16-unit design the council originally approved met all the criteria for that zoning, leading some to question whether it’s the county’s place to disregard the town’s judgment.
Newcomb said that that’s a two-way street.
“This can continue on and on,” he said. “It can continue not just with 440 West Kelly, but it will happen at the next opportunity in the county,” where perhaps the town could similarly second-guess the county’s decisions regarding its own jurisdiction.
“We need to seriously consider this process,” he said.
As for the factions in favor of and opposed to dense housing, the lines are not drawn clearly, with both opinions represented in each group. One side argues that fewer units would be respectful of the neighbors’ concerns and more politically feasible, while the other says the need for housing is too desperate to compromise.
If the town and county build anything counter to the wishes of neighbors, one line of thinking goes, then it will only grow harder to win community support for future housing endeavors.
With $5.5 million in housing funding on the ballot for the upcoming specific purpose excise tax, that support could prove essential to the long-term well-being of the affordable housing program.
On the other hand, some don’t want to set that precedent. If the project is built below its potential capacity, Councilor Hailey Morton Levinson said, “we’re leaving too much on the table.”
As a general rule the fewer units, the less affordable they are. Several elected officials said they would be interested in exploring ways to invest more money into housing projects, thereby making them more affordable.
Councilor Jim Stanford, who voted for the 12-unit proposal, rattled off a handful of projects built in recent years that “brought more density incrementally to their neighborhood. Each one fit in, and we gained more than 60 units of housing.”
To that Muldoon responded that Teton County’s Comprehensive Plan calls for 2,800.
“I think it’s a terrible start,” he said. “What we’re talking about here today is not whether we’re going to build eight, 10, 12 or 16 units on this property. It’s whether we’re going to abandon our goal of creating workforce housing in this community. It’s not going to get any easier.”
In an impassioned monologue that mostly revolved around the HBO series “Chernobyl,” Muldoon spun a metaphor of affordable housing as nuclear radiation, drawing a comparison between the West Kelly neighbors and the volunteers who risked their lives in the show to prevent a catastrophic meltdown: It may not have been best for those making the sacrifice, but it was best for the public.
“I understand your pain,” Muldoon said, speaking to the cluster of neighbors who attended the meeting. “I do understand that this is not fair. Life is rarely fair. But it must be done.”
Monday’s inaction is a further frustration for the Affordable Housing Department, which has worked with the developer, J. Roller and Tack, to present something amenable to both boards.
“We really are just trying to understand what everyone wants,” Director April Norton said.
It’s unclear where officials will go from here. There doesn’t appear to be any obvious path forward with the project, unless either the town or the county sells its portion of the property to the other, which could then move forward with its preferred design.
Some have also suggested going back to the drawing board and inviting nonprofit builders like Habitat for Humanity to submit plans. That would ensure the apartments would be affordable to the lowest income earners in Teton County but would not necessarily solve the problem of how many units to build.