THE BUZZ: Commercial Consequences

By on October 20, 2015

Looking at last week’s three-day housing meeting, the Alliance’s new development study, and the dangers of a more commercially developed valley.

151021Buzz1_origJackson, WY – Jacob Brown was a longtime Jackson resident before he was priced out of the valley and forced to move his family to Victor. “The Jackson dream is dead,” he said. “No one has time to enjoy Jackson anymore, because the Jackson dream has become working three jobs to support your family and commuting at least an hour every day.” At the time, Brown was purchasing a giant stuffed pink unicorn for his daughter to apologize for the 20-hour shift he had just worked. It is not the first time Brown has found himself in this situation.

And in Teton Valley, rents and home prices are on the rise, too. According to data supplied by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, fair market value for rentals in Victor has risen almost 14 percent in just the last year.

To address the valley’s housing woes, the Workforce Housing Action Plan, released in August by the Town of Jackson and Teton County, was placed under the microscope during a three-day joint town and county meeting last week. The plan could become a 10-year blueprint to attempt to house 65 percent of the local workforce, a goal set forth in the 2012 Comprehensive Plan.

During the meetings, the meatiest topics included appointing a housing coordinator as soon as possible, investigating revenue streams, attempting to balance incentives for private construction of affordable housing without limiting publicly-sponsored housing, and reforming the housing authority as a joint effort between the town and county.

To give public officials something to chew on during the meetings, the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance timed the release of its Jackson/Teton County Land Development Study to coincide with the meetings. Offering solid numeric recommendations, the study maps out areas of possible land rezoning, compiles estimates of future required housing, and gives recommendations on land-use management. What the report emphasized is that eventually the Teton County/Jackson area’s supply of land will not support the demand for long-term housing.

In overall development, the study concludes that the town should plan on adding between 950 and 1,190 affordable housing units over the next 10 years to accommodate the stated goal of housing 65 percent of the workforce.

County commission Chairwoman Barbara Allen, a real estate agent, was quick to open day one’s meeting by reminding attendees that the community has been addressing the problem of housing shortages head-on for some time. The community “has not acknowledged the 1,500 affordable rentals [already available],” she said. “There has been a lot of effort made, and [the town and county] want to build on that.”

But according to the Alliance’s Land Development Study, Jackson is still missing the mark for workforce housing by a long shot, and it will take several tiers of new regulations to support the ballooning demand for housing. The study compiled an analysis of market trends and demand – which predicts that the housing issues will not be appropriately addressed unless Jackson is housing two-thirds of its workforce community – the legality of Transfer of Development Rights (TDR), and practically speaking, how feasible TDR really is.

Public officials at the joint housing meetings unanimously agreed that the Grove is not a sustainable trend and that the private sector is of paramount importance in providing housing. It seems all local officials share the school of thought now that housing issues cannot be met through publicly sponsored housing developments alone. The avenues discussed to meet this demand ranged from density incentives and penny taxes to mandatory mitigation by new businesses. Stakeholder Kelly Lockhart suggested a new tax that every business would be required to pay based on its number of employees. This could be more effective than the current new business mitigation plan that many elected officials do not believe is accomplishing enough.

Mayor Sara Flitner said that the Marriott’s mitigation plan, for example, fails to do its part. The Marriott is slated to develop housing for approximately just a quarter of its projected workforce need.

The Alliance’s Land Development Study indicates that continued growth of commercial enterprise in the valley is damaging not only to the character of the valley, but to the everyday lives of its citizens. But elected officials, including Flitner and council members Hailey Morton-Levinson and Bob Lenz, were against strengthening language in the Housing Action Plan to regulate future commercial development in the area.

The Battle to Regulate

Flitner says she is not ready to sign onto black and white language that would limit commercial development. There are eventualities, she said, that she is not willing to rule out simply for the sake of numbers. “Say there was a grocery store that was built in East Jackson – that’s commercial square footage, but it would also alleviate some of the traffic issues we’re facing if we had a source like that,” she said.

Craig Benjamin, executive director of the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, has been advocating that maintaining the valley’s character hinges on walkable neighborhoods surrounded by parks, affordability, wildlife crossings and a healthy and abundant sustainable wildlife population.

“It’s the people who live here who define the character of our community, and once you drop below that 65 percent threshold, the fabric of the community starts to break down,” he said.

Without tight regulations on commercial development, alliance staffers say they are worried that Jackson will never be able to match the demand for workers. In a cyclical motion, more jobs will always demand more workers, and workers will always need more housing. Hence the best way to help workers find affordable housing, the Alliance asserts, is to limit the number of commercial enterprises that demand workers, and to manage the land already zoned for housing more efficiently.

According to the Alliance’s Land Development Study, Teton County is already well above the mark when it comes to commercial development. With a plethora of unfilled jobs flooding the want ads – some offering $500 sign-on bonuses for unskilled labor – adding more businesses to the problem does not seem to be the solution.

Benjamin is adamant that regulating future commercial development is not the answer. “Step one is not to increase commercial development potential, as we are significantly above our market growth needs,” he said. “We already have more than we need for commercial development potential.”

Step two, he continued, would be to shift some commercial land to residential. “That would ease some of the pressure, because people could not build commercial there, and it would open up the land for residential use,” he said. “That would be significantly harder, but there are opportunities for doing that.”

While it is difficult to calculate the impact of tax revenue from a business, Benjamin said, most commercial development is not necessarily inherently profitable for the community. “When you look at the impacts on infrastructure, roads, sewers, schools, having more people in the parks, trail maintenance, all of those things – no one really looks at that.”

During a break at day one’s housing meeting, a man in the crowd animatedly discussed tiny houses and the standard of living they provide. He could compromise on everything, he said, except for the loss of his library. Adapting to the Kindle is not something he is ready to embrace, as the world grows more and more compact.

When Less is More

But scaling back is the way of the future, particularly in a place with finite possibilities for land development.

Last month, internationally acclaimed scientist EO Wilson came to Jackson, what he lauds as one of the most beautiful places on earth. It was with nigh-on Nostradamian acuteness that he spoke of efficiency. According to Wilson, capitalism is the mother of efficiency. It is the trend of the future – or, maybe more poignantly, it is the only plausible future of the future. Denser, smaller, less for more, that’s the feat the world must indefinitely sustain, he said.

The Jackson community sees that unfurling like a case study; density incentives and rezoning are the main recommendations the study suggests. How do we do more with the land we have? How do we manage limited goods for a growing population? How do we preserve what makes Jackson a vibrant community to live in and to visit?

During the first meeting, many concerned citizens spoke. Comments centered on four-tiered apartments and dorm-style living arrangements that juxtaposed sharply against concerns over standard of living issues and a loss of community character.

According to The Blue Ribbon Panel on Workforce Housing, the workforce housed in Jackson Hole has steadily declined since 1990, when at one time nearly 86 percent of workers resided locally. As the middle class is pushed further and further from the place they call home, residents like Brown are left in the lurch.

“Someday I want to do something big, to make my daughter proud, so that she can point to something in my life, and think that what I did was important,” Brown said of dreams he has had to put on hold. Brown says he wants to hike the El Camino del Diablo trail and maybe write a book about it, but the price of rent and day-to-day expenses have made the idea of taking off work too cost prohibitive. In the meantime, he has more 20-hour days to work to pay rent in a place he doesn’t have time to enjoy.

Officials will vote on the plan next month. PJH

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