THE BUZZ: Lodging Flip-Flop

By on June 28, 2016

Elected officials oscillate on a decision that could exacerbate the housing crisis.

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JACKSON HOLE, WY – The Jackson Town Council switched its stance to include commercial development in downtown Jackson last week, causing some residents to question its blueprint for solving a historic housing crisis. During a June 20 meeting, the council reversed its decision in a 4-1 vote on an ordinance that would have limited millions of square feet of commercial development in District 2.

Emails obtained by The Planet confirmed town officials were approached by members of the business community and Think About It Jackson Hole just days prior to the June 20 meeting. Both Don Frank and Bob Lenz were solicited by former mayor Mark Barron and other businessmen pushing for additional commercial “to discuss just a few issues regarding District 2 zoning,” the email from Barron read. Hailey Morton Levinson, in turn, was invited to coffee with Think About It’s Kristin Walker to “touch base with you about District 2 LDRs,” Walker wrote.

Mayor Sara Flitner was also privately vetted. Only councilor Jim Stanford was apparently left out of the “secret” meetings. He was the sole dissenting vote.

The ordinance now contains an option to include short-term market-rate rentals in residential units as part of the floor area bonus in District 2, which encompasses the downtown core, most of Pearl Avenue, and stretches of Broadway and Cache streets. Short-term rentals could be used as an incentive to developers to build affordable housing in exchange for getting to build, essentially, Airbnb-style lodging as well.

The council voted against the option to include short-term rentals in District 2 during the ordinance’s first reading June 6. In order to pass, an ordinance needs three readings before the council. Some residents may recall that June 6 was the date of the Shelter JH rally that filled council chambers beyond capacity with housing advocates and citizens pleading for solutions to Jackson’s housing crisis.

“Whatever decision you’re going to make for District 2, take into consideration that we already have an emergency,” Shelter JH organizer Jorge Moreno said during public comment on June 6. “Don’t make it worse.”

During the June 6 reading of the ordinance, councilors Levinson and Stanford voted against short-term rentals without reservation. Flitner and Frank also voted against short-term rentals for the time being, but expressed interest in revisiting the option in the future. Lenz was absent.

“I could go either way,” Flitner said during discussion. “I could see logic for the downtown core being included. Or I’m happy for that to be part of the conversation a year from now or whenever we check in about what is or isn’t working.”

Town planning staff had recommended against short-term rentals. Levinson stated that staff’s recommendations influenced her decision on that date.

Two weeks later, however, Levinson, Flitner and Frank changed their minds and voted to include the short-term rental bonus in the downtown core only, during a June 20 town council meeting where business owners and developers were present, but most who had previously stood up for housing were not in the room.

“It’s been a pendulum swing trying to figure out what’s going to work,” Levinson told The Planet. “In those two weeks in between [the first and second reading], I got to chat with a few people including S.R. Mills and Bob Lenz. Bob had always been in favor of short-term rentals.”

Delays and reversals

Tinkering at the last minute, though, is hardly helping the housing emergency. This ordinance and several connected to it will now need an additional reading, adding weeks to the arduous process of getting them passed. The urgency of public need and the behemoth of the planning process are woefully out of step.

While the people Moreno spoke out for at the June 6 meeting were cooking and cleaning the past few weeks, property developer S.R. Mills was creating an analysis of why a bigger incentive was needed for developers to want to build downtown. The game-changing incentive Mills hit on was short-term rentals, which change the benefit from the tens of thousands to millions for developers.

In a surprise move, Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance executive director Craig Benjamin spoke in favor of Mills’ analysis at the June 20 meeting. Benjamin urged the council to include the short-term rentals. Two weeks earlier, the Alliance’s Mary Gibson had asked the council to move ahead without the short-term rentals.

“Previously we were concerned, but we analyzed the impacts of this decision and it appears that including short-term rentals will help produce significantly more workforce housing,” Benjamin told the council.

Stanford, who opposed the decision, noted that the units would add up to 1.2 to 2.4 million square feet of additional commercial potential in the downtown core. “We cannot take a vote concurrently with the county and say that we will hold the line at the 5.1 million square foot potential [and then] veer from that unilaterally,” Stanford told his colleagues at the June 20 meeting.

Stanford was referring to a joint agreement between town and county in January during which they agreed to hew as closely as possible to the commercial development outlined in the Comprehensive Plan.

Public outcry

Since the June 20 meeting, some people have criticized the timing and reasoning of the council’s change-up. Mayoral candidate Pete Muldoon says the public should have been engaged.

“I think the council will have to admit they made a rushed decision that they didn’t understand, and without involving the public,” Muldoon said. “They did it because a developer told them they should.”

Certified financial planner and community activist Richard Bloom had more pointed words. “My biggest issue is that it smacks of last-minute, backdoor influence by moneyed interests,” Bloom said. “It’s incredibly disheartening.”

Flitner says she is trying to get housing built. “We are trying to incentivize the housing that we want,” Flitner said. “What I learned in this example is if we allowed a short-term rental bonus, we get 14 additional housing units.”

Levinson also was motivated by the desire to create housing. “I want to see the affordables built,” she said.

But Stanford is not convinced “affordable” is what potential the workforce housing will be. He says any housing built in the 10-block downtown core will be expensive to build because of its location. It is his understanding that the deed restriction in question is employment based, not affordable.

“This is the lowest bare minimum of a deed restriction that we are getting,” Stanford said. “Employment-based doesn’t mean affordable. It could be housing for doctors, lawyers, investment bankers.”

Another mayoral candidate, Mark Obringer, said his goal downtown would be to find housing for locals. “I’m not interested in lifestyle units for rent,” Obringer said.

Alarming numbers

Muldoon thinks this is a clear case of politicians being influenced by developers with money. “The landowners and developers who are practicing what I call ‘zombie politics,’ and who refuse to accept the community’s decisions must learn to accept ‘no’ for an answer, and stop trying to wear down the overworked voters of Jackson,” Muldoon said.

Since June 20, the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance has reversed its position. The nonprofit no longer supports short-term rentals as part of the incentive program to build workforce housing.

In a public statement, the Alliance stated it made a hasty decision based on a “quick and preliminary analysis.”

“Since making this quick decision,” the statement reads, “we have dug further into this issue and discovered a significant unintended consequence: if all landowners in the downtown core zone used this incentive, the net impact to the community could be as large as 1.2 to 2.4 million square feet of short-term rentals.”

Benjamin told The Planet that, despite his initial enthusiasm for Mills’ study, he felt the need to backtrack and encourage more thorough review. “Given the complexity and intricacy and long lasting impacts of this decision, we felt it was more important to step back and make sure we get this right than to continue rushing forward with a policy choice that has not been adequately analyzed,” Benjamin said.

Levinson says the millions of square feet Benjamin, Stanford and others are worried about are not based on a realistic assessment. “I hear those numbers that people throw out, but for me that’s an end of days that we will never get to,” she said. “That’s if everyone redevelops or develops their land to the highest potential.”

Joint planner Tyler Sinclair said Stanford’s numbers are generally correct. “Depending on how you want to look at the numbers, they are fair if everyone used the tool to its maximum,” Sinclair explained. “But you would also get a large number of workforce housing units.”

But if the issue will be revisited in a year with Flitner’s stakeholder group, some are wondering: Why gum up the process now?

“They should stick with the original plan that was agreed upon with the community’s full involvement,” Muldoon said.

Bloom sent an extensive letter to the town council, including his own analysis of Mills’ figures. He too urged them to reverse their vote (excepting Stanford) and not allow short term-rentals.

“I know each of you have the community’s interest at heart,” Bloom wrote. “I also know these last 18 months on District 2 have been long and drawn out. But, frankly, Monday’s vote coming at the second reading of the final District 2 code, which completely reversed your direction, has extremely large, unintended implications that I do not think you had the time to properly consider.”

Stanford, who has been warning of the potential consequences of short-term rentals for weeks, questioned why the timing of this decision is coming late in the game, without public discussion. “What frustrates me is, if people thought this was so important, then we should have been willing to roll up our sleeves and do the work to come to a compromise,” he said. “I worry that we are going off the rails again.” PJH

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About Meg Daly

Meg Daly is a freelance writer and arts instigator. She grew up in Jackson in the 1970s and 80s, when there were fewer fences, but less culture. Follow Meg on Twitter @MegDaly1

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