Lower Valley Energy is one step closer to approval for an employee housing development on S. Highway 89 after a Monday night nod from the county planning commission.
“This is a great thing,” Planning Commissioner Kasey Mateosky said. “We talk growth, we talk affordable housing, but then we say no. We always say no.”
Advocating for bucking that trend, Mateosky was perhaps the most enthusiastic member on the commission, which reviews and opines on development issues before they go to the Teton County Board of County Commissioners for a final vote.
Planning staff had recommended that the advisory committee deny the utility’s proposal to rezone land near the South Park Business Park for housing. But, after grappling with concerns about zoning and wildlife for two and half hours Monday night, the planning commission voted 4-1 to recommend their elected counterparts approve the proposal with conditions.
Those stipulations included a requirement to restrict all housing on the property for the local workforce, limit development to residential units associated with nearby industrial uses, and cap development at 50,000 square feet to keep room for wildlife. The suburban zone Lower Valley Energy is eyeing could otherwise allow upwards of 100,000 square feet of development on the property.
The utility’s goal is to upzone 7.14 acres that are currently in a rural zone to that suburban zone and develop an estimated 17 homes on lots that are about a fifth of an acre, as well as six smaller apartment-style dwellings.
The intent is to provide housing for long-time employees that respond to emergencies in Teton County but live elsewhere.
Lower Valley Energy CEO Jim Webb described housing employees where they work as his “biggest challenge” that gets worse in inclement weather.
A storm last winter caused a power outage in Teton County and closed the Snake River Canyon, blocking employees in Star Valley from reaching the work site.
“I had to lease a helicopter and have those linemen flown up,” Webb said. “That’s not always available and if the storm is still ongoing they wouldn’t be able to fly, and so it’s critical to me to have these employees here, part of the community, living here, ready to respond.”
County planners recommended denying the proposal because they were concerned that the suburban zone could allow Lower Valley Energy to develop in a manner inconsistent with the 2012 Jackson/Teton County Comprehensive Plan’s vision for the business park area. That document envisions allowing workforce housing in units that are an “accessory to industrial uses” or part of the industrial area as “live/work units.”
Staff worried that suburban zoning doesn’t require workforce deed restrictions and could allow development out of sync with the area’s character: 25 unrestricted single-family homes, for example, or a 100,000-square-foot reception hall.
“We want to make sure there is some kind of regulatory component that is binding to ensure that we are consistent with the character,” Senior Long Range Planner Kristi Malone said.
Planning Commissioners Alex Muromcew and Karen Rockey said getting that regulatory component in place through a conditional approval was a “slippery slope.” Requiring workforce housing deed restrictions where the zoning does not or allowing only some of the many uses allowed in a zone, they suggested, could erode predictability for developers and neighbors.
“One of the purposes of redoing the [land development regulations] in 2015,” Rockey said, “was to make the rules and regulations transparent and abide by them rather than cutting a unique deal every time someone came before the board of county commissioners.”
Bill Collins, a former Teton County planning director who is representing Lower Valley Energy, seemed to assuage their concerns.
Both voted in favor.
The utility was committed to workforce housing deed restrictions, Collins said, and already had mapped out options for a residential-only development.
Two neighbors in the more spacious Little Horsethief Canyon neighborhood, which would abut the Lower Valley Energy project, opposed the proposal.
Wendy Meyring said she was concerned about the density.
“We have lots here that are three to seven acres and just don’t feel that the density that’s being proposed at all blends well with our subdivision,” she said.
Peter Edington was concerned about wildlife on the land in question.
“The elk do use that as a migration corridor,” he said.
Doug McWhirter, Wyoming Game and Fish’s wildlife management coordinator, said in a letter to county planners that the land is within a mapped winter range for mule deer, moose and elk. But those ungulates primarily occupy the hills above the proposed development, the location of which, McWhirter said, “is removed as much as possible from these more highly used slopes.”
Lower Valley Energy will still have to undergo an environmental assessment if the rezone is approved when county commissioners take up the conversation in August.