The Jackson Hole Classical Academy will have to live with a 10,000-square-foot gym after elected officials rejected its request for an additional 5,000 feet, which its administrators say is necessary for a fully functioning facility.
Because the zoning for the school’s proposed location in South Park limits maximum size to the smaller area — and because it is not allowed to seek a unique exemption for itself — the academy asked for a broader revision to the rural land development regulations. But the Teton County Board of County Commissioners wasn’t willing to face the risks of undermining policies that commissioners said were carefully crafted to align with county values.
“As commissioners,” Chairman Mark Newcomb said, “we’re really striving to recognize the desire and the need and to support the effort for choice in education … and at the same time struggling with the notion that we really want to protect the open-space values in the county.”
The contentious request for a change in zoning, and the academy’s new school in general, have set two groups against each other throughout a process Commissioner Natalia Macker called “personal and ugly and, at times, disappointing.”
Dozens of people stood in line at the board’s meeting Thursday to praise or condemn the proposal. The lines were largely drawn between parents of academy students and those who feel it will benefit the community broadly, and rural neighbors loath to see development in the area.
Some critics, including former Commissioner Sandy Shuptrine, argued that allowing larger buildings throughout the county’s rural districts would blunt safeguards written into the town and county’s Comprehensive Plan, a guiding document meant to protect the environment and local character.
“I am particularly worried,” Shuptrine said, “about affecting our Comp Plan by a thousand cuts, and the unintended consequences of moving forward at this time.”
Supporters cited the shortage of gym space in Teton County as the main justification for granting the zoning change. A larger gym, they said, would provide room not just for academy students, but for the community in general.
“I assure you that the ... academic experience of all students in the valley will be improved,” said Sam Lunz, head boys basketball coach at Jackson Hole High School. “More than 10,000 square feet is necessary.”
Academy representatives noted that several buildings over that size already exist within rural districts, including the Three Creek Clubhouse and Journeys School buildings. Leah Corrigan, the academy’s attorney, said the 10,000-square-foot limit was established for second homes and argued that the school should not be equated with residential uses.
Macker said the real problem may be that the county has done away with variances related to density, through which the school could have sought a case-specific exception to the zoning. Its sole option was to request a far-reaching amendment to the size regulations.
Corrigan confirmed that.
“This is the only path,” she said. “That’s why we’re here.”
Macker said she would be interested in reconsidering variances, though others argued that the county should avoid them to maintain predictability in development. If the board allowed a variance, the academy could try that route to obtain a larger gym.
Meanwhile, a state bill introduced last week would strip local zoning authority over private schools, in what many have decried as an attempt at end-run legislation. Newcomb several times cut off public commenters who mentioned the bill, calling it a separate matter.
Editors note: This article has been revised to reflect that the county has eliminated variances related to density, not all variances.