THE BUZZ: Mass Exodus

By on September 28, 2016

Is NIMBYism to blame for the valley’s critical character loss?

JACKSON HOLE, WY – In the coming weeks, two more families will leave the valley, joining a veritable caravan of emigrating, reverse-homesteaders browbeaten into uprooting and giving up on Jackson Hole. Two more couples tired of the treadmill and carrot. Two more tears in the fabric.

The Woods and the Siegfrieds could not be more different. One family couldn’t wait to unload their $19M property in Wilson and get out of Dodge for their home state of Oklahoma. The other couldn’t afford to waste any more time struggling to put down permanent roots in Jackson Hole. But both parties are leaving, either directly or indirectly, because of an increasingly prevalent attitude here: “Not In My Back Yard.”

Tale of two desertions

Robin and Cherrie Siegfried moved to the valley in 1997 from Tulsa. Robin fell in love with the western way of life offered in the Cowboy State. He embraced it with vigor even if his neighbors did not always feel the same about his arrival.

Siegfried ran afoul of the West Bank contingent almost immediately, beginning a pattern of feather ruffling that would eventually cause the aircraft industry magnate to decide the Hole is not the welcoming community he wanted to believe it was. An attempt to build a helicopter pad at his Fish Creek Road home was met with fierce confrontation and eventual denial by county commissioners. Siegfried also battled with immediate neighbors over their attempts to subdivide their property.

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Robin and Cherrie Siegfried

The legal haranguing culminated with a highly publicized war over his ranch’s ability to host weddings and other party events on his property. Loring Woodman and Melody Lin voiced their displeasure over being subjected to late night noise and traffic, leading to county-wide legislation over how many parties large landowners could hold and how often.

The bureaucratic battles soured the Siegfrieds on Jackson Hole. They recently sold their property for a reported $17 million and will be leaving the valley in frustration.

What the community loses is a couple that gave back. For years, the Siegfrieds bought the chicken for the fire department’s annual fund-raising chicken fry. Robin was also active in the police department’s mounted patrol.

The Woods—Katie and Scott—would have given nearly anything to own a house and land in Teton County. Katie, who is from the Dubois-Crowheart area, moved here 11 years ago and it’s been a struggle to find housing ever since. She tried Victor for a year and a half but the commute didn’t suit her. She’s been on the “affordable list” with the Housing Authority for years with no luck.

After marrying five years ago, the Woods contemplated buying something, anything, but prices remained out of reach for the professional couple.

“After we started making more money we worked ourselves out of the low-end affordable category, but the free market isn’t going to work for us, either,” Wood said. “We are paying $1,500 a month for a basement apartment. We could maybe get into a low-end condo here and rent a storage unit, and hope [economic conditions] don’t shift and we go underwater, stuck living in a tiny condo with shared walls on all sides. We are just super frustrated. We don’t see a path out.”

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Katie and Scott Wood

Katie said she’s tired of playing the game—pushing a grindstone of second and third jobs, more hours, only to find she and her husband are chasing after a real estate reverie they’ll never reach. So they put in an offer on a home in Glacier, Montana, where they expect to be moving by November.

With the departure of Katie and Scott, the valley will say goodbye to their media design company and its work with companies like Brain Farm and TGR. Wood Design donated countless hours to nonprofits in preparation for Old Bills. Scott has helped teach web design for the high school’s History Day.

Katie helped found Thrive last summer—an empowerment program for young women that’s an offshoot of GAP! (Girls Actively Participating). She’s also done social work at Van Vleck House, and has taken up a side job of photographing weddings.

NIMBY, LULU, NIABY, and just plain BANANAs

NIMBYism (Not In My Back Yard) was coined in the early 1980s for the vigilante mentality that rises to challenge undesirable development, and it is largely to blame for the valley’s woes. The condition has worsened here over the years—brewing from civic engagement to entitled outrage—to the point where practically everything is contested.

Residential developments recently proposed in South Park and Bar J faced a storm of what can only be dubbed NIMBYism. Transportation is hardly immune, either. The Tribal Trails connector elicited a ferocious public response, and polarized the community in a tug-o-war between tony Indian Springs homeowners and overnight traffic “experts.” And just try to bring up highway widening, a north bridge, or a roundabout at the “Y.”

A hidden cell tower in downtown Jackson received heavy opposition as well, even as the same citizens complaining about it couldn’t load the town meeting agenda on their smart phones because of lagging webpage load times.

The location of a new elementary school, land use zoning in downtown Jackson, and a bucolic country road in Jackson’s adjacent national park have also received plenty of remarks and resistance along the way. NIMBYism might be the bane of town and county planners everywhere in America, but the “attitude of anti” is also heralded by some as democracy in action. And NIMBYs are passionate about their property rights and their community causes, especially in Jackson Hole.

While the term is viewed primarily as a pejorative one, more and more are wrapping themselves in the NIMBY flag claiming they are looking out for more than just their own interests.

“The proposed road’s opponents ‘are not NIMBYs,’ Nicole Krieger insisted at a public meeting in 2015 over the hotly contested Tribal Trails Road. The Jackson attorney represented a coalition of citizens opposed to the connector. “They are not people who want to put a roadblock in the transportation system within Teton County and the town of Jackson. To the contrary, they are Teton County citizens and residents who care tremendously about this valley and its future.”

In a 2010 Corpus Callosum article, local economist Jonathan Schechter wrote: “The current planning process is hopeful in that it reminds us just how much people care about Jackson Hole. Yes there’s some NIMBYism going on. But rather than self-interest, I think the primary cause of the planning-process cum-trench-warfare is residents’ passion for their community. And that’s a wonderful thing.”

Notable author Alexandra Fuller, who lives in Wilson, is unabashedly proactive in protecting her yard. “I think corporations invented [NIMBY] so that we would be embarrassed into not fighting for our backyards. I absolutely am a NIMBY, and I am going to stay and fight for my backyard,” she said in a 2008 interview with New West.

NIMBYism has spawned its own acronymical dictionary including LULUs (Locally Undesirable Land Uses, NOTEs (Not Over There Either), NIABYs (Not In Anyone’s Backyard), BANANAs (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anyone), and even NOPEs (Not On Planet Earth!), CAVE people (Citizens Against Virtually Everything) and NIMTOOs (Not In My Term Of Office).

Matthew J. Kiefer penned a classic treatise for Harvard Design Magazine on NIMBYism as an inescapable feature of the development landscape. In it, the Boston attorney added a crop of tangential terminology that could be viewed as humorous if not spot on.

In his article, Kiefer examined a typical neighborhood meeting concerning a proposed condominium project that sounds so Jackson it’s as if he was in the back row at a council meeting.

“First, people complain that they did not get notice of the meeting—yet they are in attendance, so what are we to make of that?” Kiefer began. “The project-specific complaints follow familiar patterns too. The traffic in every neighborhood is, apparently, already intolerable no matter what the transportation consultants say about ‘level of service.’ The project will only worsen it, infringing upon residents’ inalienable right to uncongested streets.

“For large-scale urban projects, the second most prevalent objection is against building height, which often becomes the currency in which trades are made. For the neighbors, height is a signifier of all other impacts. For the developer, height is directly proportional to financial feasibility. So it rapidly becomes a zero sum game, which in turn leads to gamesmanship.

“A third leitmotif is view. Virtually all residents believe that the Constitution protects the view from every window of their homes.”

We need housing… just not here

David Quinn, the man trying to develop four lots in South Park, which he says will provide at least 57 affordable homes, if not more, ran into a buzz saw of backlash with his project. It didn’t help Quinn and his Steelhead Partners that he rushed his pre-application in order to get in under the sun-setting PRD (planned residential development) tool, scheduled to be packed on ice just weeks from when he submitted his plans in December 2015.

The project involves a swap of land rights that will protect open space at the Lucas family’s cattle ranchland on Spring Gulch in exchange for 206 homes on 203 acres the Lucases own on South Park Loop.

“We thought we had a really great opportunity here to provide housing where it is needed at no cost to the taxpayer. My family has been caught up in this housing issue; many of my friends as well. It’s very ‘in your face’ in this town,” Quinn said. “I don’t blame anybody. I’m not pointing a finger. But it’s been years and years of people who come to the county commissioner meetings who don’t want anything in their backyard. These same few people put the planning staff and [elected officials] under so much pressure they are scared to make a decision or say the wrong thing.”

Quinn says the red tape facing developers now—even those wanting to build affordable housing—has made it nearly impossible to get anything done, especially in the county.

“They’re continually adding more regulations, making it more difficult. It’s become such a complex, arduous, and drawn-out process that I’m not sure anybody can get anything through with any plan. No matter how good the merits of the plan are,” he said.

In 2007, Jackson lawyer Peter Moyer led a litigious intransigence against the county housing agency’s purchase of a 5.2-acre parcel in his neighborhood on Cheney Lane. The result left county officials gun-shy at developing the property as a dense affordable housing project. The property is currently under contract to be sold at a $100,000 loss after nearly a fallow decade in government hands.

A real ‘emptiness’ to the community

The Siegfrieds and Woods are just the latest evacuees washing their hands of the resort rat race. Katie Wood has mixed feelings about leaving but she knows it’s probably for the best.

“I don’t want to come across as ‘woe is me,’” she said. “We are not looking for a handout or someone to make Jackson work for us. We keep toughing it out and working harder, hoping Jackson will get its shit together. But we have to cut the cord and look out for ourselves and build a family and some equity.”

Wood fears the valley is headed for a serious awakening—a time when everyone finally recognizes a feudalism-serfdom society has taken root in Shangri La.

“It’s a real shame. There are two extreme levels of people here: transient workers and those who can afford anything,” Wood said. “There is no balance. There is a real emptiness to the community now. I know so many people in the same boat. Jackson, you are losing the backbone of your community. People are throwing their hands up and so much of what makes this place special is being lost.” PJH

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