Paul Hansen

Paul Hansen

For decades Jackson Hole planning has struggled with two somewhat contradictory principles: How much should we grow and how do we provide affordable housing for employees essential to the well-being of our community? On Sept. 15 the Teton County Board of County Commissioners will consider housing proposals in northern South Park from the Gill and Lockhart families. New housing here could lead to real progress, if we get it right.

Make no doubt: We need worker housing. It is disgraceful that only three of 18 Teton County Sheriff’s Office deputies are able to live in Teton County. The need for hospital staff housing, maybe 160 units, is well known. Then there is the housing need for teachers and others who plow our streets, fix our cars, pick up our garbage and provide other essential services. Affordable housing has been a goal for decades, and we have not kept pace.

Getting it right means the timely completion of a neighborhood plan to answer key questions about developments that could total 1,000 new homes and 1,000 accessory residential units, i.e., rental space attached to the new homes. Key to this plan would be assurances that some of the new housing would be affordable. More homes over $1 million will not help alleviate our housing problem.

The landowners will be subdividing and selling lots. They will not be building homes. So a public process is needed to determine what will be built on those lots. Northern South Park has long been identified as a logical place for new homes. This land is in the county, but development here impacts the town. They want a say in what goes forward.

The Gills recently wrote that they are working to make 200 deed-restricted lots available at discounted prices between $150,000 and $200,000 a lot. While that adds up to $30 million to $40 million for the family, this offering is well below market rates. It would comprise a significant donation of value to the need for affordable housing in our community. With the average cost of construction at about $325 per square foot, a 1,500-square-foot home would cost about $500,000 to build on top of the lot cost. If a neighborhood plan could find a way to guarantee that the homes built on these lots would be affordable, this could be a great deal for all.

A neighborhood plan could also probe issues about traffic, schools and sewage. Traffic in Jackson Hole has sped past all projections. Will more local housing increase or decrease traffic, if more people can live here and not commute, or add to congestion? What is the capacity of our schools and how they will handle the new students?

Modern sewage treatment for these new homes is essential. Drinking water in Jackson Hole comes from what Environmental Protection Agency calls a “sole source aquifer.” This is the gravel river of pure water that slowly flows beneath the valley. It is unknown how much existing septic systems and sewage water injection are already polluting this aquifer. Septic systems and aquifer injection are inappropriate for new homes. So is surface discharge of sewage sludge or sewage wastewater. So far the town is making hookup to its sewage plant contingent on the completion of a neighborhood plan.

The Teton County Planning Commission and the Teton County planning staff also urge the completion of a neighborhood plan before rezoning. The Lockhart family is reported to be OK with this. The Gill family is not. Back in the 1970s the patriarch of both families, Ralph Gill, was instrumental in building the town of Jackson sewage plant. People worked together. Gill and others donated easements for the pipes and land for the plant. It was a great example of community spirit.

Unfortunately, handshake deals and “trust me” approaches like this are a thing of the past. Today’s world requires negotiated written guarantees on multimillion-dollar projects. But wouldn’t it be great if we could recapture some of that spirit and make this deal work?

Paul W. Hansen’s Common Ground column appears about twice a month. Columns are solely the opinion of their authors. Contact him via columnists@jhnewsandguide.com.

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