Wooden. Low-rise. Wild. Evolving.
Those are a few of the dots that connect to form the image of “Western character,” judging by the one-word responses of some 100 people who offered their opinions during June workshops designed to pin down that elusive term.
The crowd was a hodgepodge of native Jacksonites, longtime locals, newcomers and even a few 20-somethings. Some were architects and planners, some home and business owners. What they shared was a desire to ensure that as Teton County grows and changes year by year, something essential survives the transformation.
“It’s up to local governments and our community to decide what historic preservation means to us,” Katherine Wonson, chairwoman of the Historic Preservation Board, told the group. “This is where we decide where we want to go with this.”
Attendees sat six or so to a table at Snow King Resort’s Grand View Lodge, with maps and photos of buildings spread out before them. One group consisted of former Barker-Ewing Whitewater owner Patty Ewing, architect Kurt Dubbe, real estate broker Bruce Simon, retired planning consultant Don Jensen and homeowners George Davis and Ramona Santiago-Davis.
Working their way through the stack of images, the participants jotted notes on which areas they deem historic, which styles of building they consider worth keeping, and which should be sanctioned in the holiest of holies — the Town Square.
They highlighted construction they admired, from second-floor decks to wood and stone materials. Ewing half-jokingly suggested they cross out the cars parked along the streets and replace them with horses, buggies and hitching posts.
Vehement disagreements are the norm in most development debates in Jackson, and they arose even in these hypothetical discussions. Davis and Santiago-Davis, who are married and building a house in town, may have to flip a coin over some design choices.
“Are you freaking insane?” Davis asked, upon noticing his wife had added the corrugated-metal Trio building to her list of structures to allow on the Town Square proper.
“What?” she asked. “It’s two stories.” He shrugged, unconvinced but accepting the point.
“Too modern,” Simon added.
Soon enough, town Planning Director Tyler Sinclair strolled by to say, “You don’t have to agree. Architecture is like art — you’ll never agree.”
With few mechanisms for protecting Teton County’s heritage and no concrete stylistic philosophy to guide development, officials want to revamp their strategy on both fronts.
That endeavor takes two tracks: devising regulations for Town Square, which are weak and have not been updated since 1994, and creating broader regulations to promote historic preservation throughout Teton County. Because the idea of historic preservation is often entwined with that of Western character, and because both lack a solid regulatory underpinning, the processes are being combined.
The June 10 workshops, led by Boulder, Colorado, consultants Winter and Company, were the first steps toward building a baseline for the public’s conception of what Jackson should look like.
The participants also drew their versions of Town Square boundaries, which, it turns out, are far from exact.
The official Town Square zone is divided into an inner and outer Town Square, respectively dubbed Districts 1.1 and 1.2. The notable distinction is that buildings in the inner zone can be up to only two stories; in the outer zone they can be three.
But there’s a discrepancy between that zoning and the vision in the Comprehensive Plan, leaving the boundaries an open question — wide open, based on the diverse shapes people marked on their maps.
All those differences testify to the challenge of defining an idea as abstract as “Western character.” The consultants now have the unwieldy task of translating those scribbled thoughts and circled building features into recommendations that can be applied throughout Teton County and Town Square.
Nore Winter, owner of Winter and Company, said he hopes to have the feedback compiled by late July or early August. In late September or early October the firm will present its Teton County-specific ideas in a second round of workshops.
Having worked in other resort towns like Aspen and Steamboat, Colorado, and Park City, Utah, Winter said the path to preservation is different in every community. However, he outlined some of the strategies others have used.
One popular approach is to give developers incentives to preserve. Boulder, Colorado, for example, offers a sales tax rebate on construction materials used for historic buildings. Other places waive certain requirements and permit fees or allow owners to give up development rights in exchange for a tax deduction.
Any addition to the toolbox of Teton County preservationists would be welcome. The only authority the Historic Preservation Board has now is to request a 90-day stay of demolition permits, giving it time to find new homes for structures.
During his research Winter discovered that Jackson also has a “historic district,” of which even town planners were unaware. But, clearly, “it’s been overlooked to a great extent,” and comes with no regulations or incentives.
Winter said protecting Teton County’s heritage isn’t incompatible with the community’s evolution. Historic buildings can be renovated and rehabilitated over the years, he argued, so long as they retain the aspects that convey their significance.
“Preservation does not mean putting a building under a bell jar and freezing it for all time,” he said. “All historic buildings have to do something for us to really earn their keep.”
In the eyes of professional preservationists, recent pushes to safeguard community heritage have been a long time coming.
“I think the process is an opening round for a bright future in this community,” said architect Dubbe, a founding member of the Historic Preservation Board from 1995.
Not long ago, he said, preservationists and the decision-makers on government planning boards were “separate entities.”
“Now we’re actually talking,” Dubbe said. “We have a voice.”
In another optimistic example, Wonson recalled that when the century-old Van Vleck barn was torn down a few years ago, “it was devastating to our board, but I don’t remember there being much of a kerfuffle outside of our board meeting.”
That stands in stark contrast to the impassioned campaign of the past year to preserve the historic cabins along the Genevieve block, and to the community interest that spurred dozens to contribute to Monday’s workshops.
“To me,” she said, “there couldn’t be a more poignant example of how we have moved from the concerned minority to the majority concern.”