Teton County suffers from an illness best labeled Exclusionary Development Syndrome.

Classic symptoms include tunnel vision, denial and hypocrisy, masked by overreaching concern for the environment. Every development consideration and decision is broadcast in concerns we all share and want to hear: traffic, preservation of clean waterways, groundwater, fauna and flora, open space and, the mother of all concerns, carbon footprint.

But, sadly, these concerns have become “code” for our refusal to recognize and deal with the tourist draw we have created and the fact that many of us don’t really want “the great unwashed” living nearby.

Our illness is choking us. Traffic is brutal, businesses can’t find help; teachers, nurses and other working friends are forced to live in remote communities and account for around 10,000 vehicle trips daily. Our less affluent neighbors are being forced out. Our children can’t afford to live here.

News flash: Traffic and labor shortages are here to stay and will worsen.

Why is it heresy to examine a bridge over the Snake River near the airport? Forget emergency safety and elimination of hundreds of thousands of trips around the horn and resultant ecological damage. Why do we toss our cookies at the mention of a plan to study road improvements and a loop around town that would mitigate traffic jams and resultant pollution and ugliness?

Why must we really give only token assistance and much lip service to deed-restricted affordable housing, which is critical to our future?

Kudos to those who preserve historical buildings and provide “workforce housing.”

But we all know, deep down, we must do much, much more.

Recognize there are 3 million glorious acres in our county, almost all of which is owned and supported by other citizen taxpayers; only 3% of county land is privately owned by us, and half of that is undevelopable. Now that is “open space.”

Yet our zoning regime is exclusionary, devoid of meaningful concepts of “fair share” and low-income housing, and is the only regime in the entire state which prohibits all variances. (For example, a variance would permit Legacy Lodge to be converted to employee housing with appropriate conditions and limitations.)

Enlightened zoning recognizes the need for economically diverse housing and balances that healthy concept with the desire for viewsheds and environmental protection by permitting limited zones to be developed with dense housing surrounded by open space available to the public.

For example, a landowner in such a zone could develop 100 acres with 30 exclusive homes, with no open space or meaningful affordable deed-protected housing. But a well-drafted cluster option would incentivize the landowner to keep 50 acres in open space on the perimeter and develop 200 houses of various types on the interior 50 acres; and provide 50% of the homes must be deed-restricted for ownership and rental with annual appreciation caps. A few such developments would more than ease our crises.

Instead, many of us pat ourselves on the back when we force development of the Bar J Chuckwagon site with six or seven ultra-high-end homes, and proclaim: “It’s good for the neighborhood.”

We balk at dense development at Hog Island. We refuse to be creative there, or anywhere near South Park or west of the Snake River, to protect the “integrity and character” of our communities while we cram 12 units on two lots in the middle of an old and established neighborhood on West Kelly. No ultra-wealthy people could afford to block it.

Think about what that really means.

We wrap ourselves in the blanket of environmental awareness. We keep building 100-room $1,000-per-night hotels and hundreds of estate homes requiring enormous energy and workforce and creating carbon, water and environmental footprints (please don’t point to water-saving toilets and showerheads) which would make even Al Gore blush in his private jet. As sure as cattle burp and fart methane in our 3% fiefdom, traffic must be accommodated and workers should live among us, all in balance with nature.

I have filed two lawsuits challenging our exclusionary zoning regime as being unlawful and unconstitutional. I believe I would have won both, but they were settled before a court could decide. If we don’t amend our ordinances, sooner or later a landowner will force the issue and judges in Cheyenne will decide how to amend them for us.

Let’s all look in the mirror. Do we really need to spend tax dollars on an ecology czar to run yet another commission to show us how environmentally wonderful and sensitive we are to exclude road improvements and fair share of dense affordable deed-restricted housing on our 3% of the land mass? How about an unbiased traffic study and some environmentally balanced inclusive development instead?

Michael Clement, a valley homeowner for nearly two decades, owns a development company and is licensed to practice real estate and finance law in Wyoming, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. He serves on the board of directors for Bryn Mawr Trust Company. Guest Shots are solely the opinion of their authors.

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(1) comment

Elizabeth Masek

Bravo!

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