A week ago it seemed the densest option for workforce housing at 440 W. Kelly Ave. was doomed. On Tuesday, one elected official could change that.
The Town Council and Board of County Commissioners last week scrapped the controversial design to build a three-story, 16-unit complex in a neighborhood of mostly single-story homes. The proposal drew fierce opposition from neighbors who argued it would ruin the character of their block.
Though town councilors approved the project 3 to 2, the commissioners nullified that vote when they rejected it 3 to 2, with Commissioners Luther Propst, Mark Barron and Greg Epstein voting against and Natalia Macker and Mark Newcomb voting in favor.
At that point the possibility of 16 units evaporated, until Monday when Epstein called for a second vote. The commissioners will reconsider it at 9 a.m. Tuesday, after a discussion about a separate housing project at 105 Mercill Ave. Epstein appeared poised to swing the vote and revive the proposal.
“It was a hard decision,” Epstein said Monday. “I sat on it and thought about it all weekend and just decided today that it was the right thing to do.”
He said he came to that conclusion after realizing that if government doesn’t take the lead on the project, private developers may not either, instead avoiding it out of fear of public criticism. He also decided that county officials should not stand in the way of housing projects within town limits.
In the same meeting on Monday, several community members urged the commissioners to rethink their decision. They said the elected officials should not only weigh the opposition of the neighbors, but also the desperate housing needs of local workers.
“Change is hard, and disrupting the status quo inevitably will ruffle some feathers,” Emily Cohen said. “Those property owners are people who already have security, who in many cases are retired and have the time to attend a hearing in the middle of a workday. You did not hear the voices of working people like myself, though that doesn’t mean we aren’t paying attention.”
Pat Chadwick agreed.
“I wanted to make sure a different generation’s perspective was communicated,” he said. “I believe we’re running out of solid opportunities to find affordable housing that is close to town.”
But at least some of the neighbors are sticking to their argument that although Teton County needs more homes for its workforce, those homes don’t belong on West Kelly in such magnitude. They have said they would accept a design with fewer units.
“I don’t think it’s an either/or,” Perri Stern said of the conflict between workforce housing and community character. “The neighbors are very committed to having something built on that site. But a project that is in context with the neighborhood, that is responsive to neighbors’ concerns, would be appropriate to that site.”
She added that she was “dismayed” by the sudden attempt to reverse last week’s decision without advance notification to neighbors.
“We’re completely surprised by this,” she said, “and we sincerely hope the elected officials will maintain their rejection of this particular project, and that we can move forward together to put a really great project on that site that makes sense for workforce housing, but also makes sense for the neighborhood.”
— Allie Gross contributed to this story.