GUEST OPINION: The Tipping Point

By on September 8, 2015

More commercial development will push a struggling community further off balance.

‘Housing not hotels’ seems a recurring mantra around these parts. (Photo: Josh Sheuerman)

‘Housing not hotels’ seems a recurring mantra around these parts. (Photo: Josh Sheuerman)

Jackson Hole, Wyoming – Two years ago my wife Stacy and I decided to leave successful careers in Seattle and move back to Jackson Hole – where we met, fell in love and got married – to raise our two children. While we were excited our kids, Piper and Ryder, would get to grow up in a place with abundant wildlife and astonishingly beautiful wild places, it was the opportunity for them to grow up in a place with a sense of community that drove our decision. But right now that sense of community is crumbling.

In June, a local restaurant manager asked me to personally thank everyone who had spoken up for housing affordable workers during the Downtown (District 2) land development regulations update process. That’s because he can barely find enough staff to stay open for dinner (he’d long since given up on finding enough staff to open for lunch).

Then there’s the 40 percent increase in rent at Blair Place Apartments, which might just be the straw that broke our community’s back because of its impact on police and community leaders who may now have to leave the valley. In The Planet’s series “The Faces of Blair,” 11-year valley resident (and Blair Place denizen) Matt Grabowski recently explained what many of us are feeling: “It feels more and more like working class people are not welcome here anymore.”

According to the 2012 Jackson/Teton County Comprehensive Plan, “Other resort communities in the Rocky Mountains facing housing affordability issues have identified the loss of a resident workforce as the primary indicator of their lost sense of community.” This is why our community has established the shared goal of housing at least 65 percent of our workforce locally – we value staying a strong community.

The 2015 Annual Indicator Report – a joint town and county document that measures our community’s progress toward our shared goals – indicates that we have already fallen below this 65 percent tipping point while explaining things are trending in the wrong direction. “Workforce housing is not being provided in balance with the jobs that are being created,” the report stated.  And, “the ratio of local workforce to local jobs has declined steadily over the past 10 years.”

Our community has passed the tipping point and is out of balance, way out of balance. We have too much commercial and lodging development and not nearly enough housing affordable to the workforce. Renowned urban planner Chuck Marohn recently said what is happening here in Jackson Hole – with residents such as emergency responders being priced out – will decidedly transform our home. “From a housing standpoint, Jackson Hole is well on its way to being like Vail, Colo.,” he warned.

In order to stay a strong community where at least 65 percent of people who work here can afford to live here, it’s estimated that our community needs to produce 280 units of housing affordable to people who work here a year for the next 10 years. Of these 280 units, 30 result from catching-up from our current deficit, 50 are the result of the pending retirement of baby-boomers and 200 are the result of employment growth.

Think about that for a second. The primary driver of our housing crunch and loss of community character is continually increasing commercial and lodging development.

This means the easiest and least costly thing we can do to deal with our housing challenge is to limit new commercial and lodging development. When you’re in a hole the best thing to do is stop digging.

This is why our Comprehensive Plan clearly states, “Community character will be preserved by limiting overall development in the community to the amount that has been allowed and planned for since 1994.”

All of this is why it’s so baffling that some of our local elected representatives are bending over backwards trying to rationalize adding millions of square feet of new commercial and lodging development potential across Jackson Hole.

This move would negatively impact our community’s housing, transportation (more traffic), and ecosystem stewardship (more impacts on wildlife) goals. Officials are unable to articulate how this policy change would advance our community’s vision of a better future and proponents of this inexplicable action have resorted to arcane arguments about the intent of a few of the elected representatives who voted to adopt our Comprehensive Plan. Wouldn’t it be better if our elected representatives made policy decisions based on what’s in the best long-term interest of our community instead of what they think a few people – who aren’t in office anymore – might have intended in the past?

Even stranger, proponents of adding more commercial and lodging development potential have argued that it would help pay the bills. That’s like pouring gasoline on a monster forest fire and then complaining you need more fire engines to put it out.

What makes all of this even more bizarre is that we already have more than five million square feet of existing commercial and lodging entitlements. When you consider that the Marriott currently under construction is only 92,000 square feet you start to understand the madness of adding millions of square feet of new commercial and lodging development potential.

Here’s what you can do to help clean up this hot mess: Write the town council ([email protected]) and the county commission ([email protected]) and tell them that Jackson Hole needs housing for our middle class, not more Marriotts. Let them know we definitely shouldn’t make our housing problem worse through a dramatic and unnecessary expansion of commercial and lodging development potential. Respectfully request that they stop wasting time considering a policy change that would take our community in the wrong direction. Tell them to start focusing on moves that would protect our community character and advance our community’s vision of a better future. PJH

Craig Benjamin is the executive director of the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance.

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About Craig Benjamin

Craig Benjamin is the executive director of the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance.

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