THE BUZZ 3: Master Plans

By on May 17, 2017

More public input, some argue, is necessary before moving forward with the town hill’s blueprint for expansion.

JACKSON HOLE, WY – “I live close to a forest, and my dog was eaten by a mountain lion. If I lived next to a ski resort, I’d expect development.” So concluded Rick Hunt’s interesting public comment in support of Snow King’s Phase 2 development plan Monday afternoon.

Hunt was among approximately 20 people who voiced their support of Snow King Mountain Resort’s Phase 2 development plan at Monday’s town council workshop. Discussion and public comment on the first agenda item alone lasted almost two hours. Snow King, many emphasized, is the community’s playground, and an essential part of the town’s character. The development plan, which includes a gondola, summit amenities, and expansion to the south and west, is essential to Snow King’s economic vitality, proponents argue.

But the merits of Snow King Resort were not what the council was there to discuss, said 47-year resident Franz Camenzind.

Instead, town councilors were asked to consider writing a letter to Bridger-Teton National Forest that would allow the United States Forest Service to begin the National Environmental Policy Act review process for Snow King’s expansion application.

Crystal clear, right?

Quick synopses: BTNF owns much of the land on Snow King Mountain, which means the community owns it, too. It’s public. For Snow King’s development plan to move along, the Forest Service must first grant approval, and before that can happen, it needs to go through NEPA, which is designed to protect federal wilderness.

Still following? The town also owns a big chunk of Snow King territory, so its input matters, too. What makes everything so controversial isn’t the proposed development, necessarily, but the lack of public involvement and the order of operations.

“Once something’s approved through NEPA, it’s approved,” said Craig Benjamin, executive director of the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance. In other words, there’s no going back. “We need to make sure that the things that are getting approved through NEPA really benefit our community,” Benjamin said. “That’s the whole goal of Snow King, so it should be in their best interest to make sure the order is correct.”

What, exactly, should that order be? There are options, Benjamin said, but all of them need to include an update to Snow King’s 17-year-old base master plan. Otherwise, “it feels like you’re building a second-story addition on a house when the foundation is crumbling.”

“The master plan is 17 years old,” echoed the Alliance’s community planning director Mary Gibson during the workshop. “We seem to avoid that point today. … The interest is in overall vision and community character, and cost and impacts to the community.”

Gibson proposed that the master plan be revised first, or at least in tandem with the National Forest review process.

“I feel like we’re putting the cart before the horse,” Mike May agreed. “I’d like to see the 17-year plan updated, and wait on the NEPA process.”

Gibson and May were the minority voices at the May 15 workshop, but town councilors received approximately 20 emails from locals on Monday morning expressing similar concerns. Many of them were from a template drafted by the Conservation Alliance.

“If you allow Snow King to move into the NEPA process, you’ll be tacitly endorsing their proposed projects without understanding their impacts on our community and without a plan to mitigate these substantial impacts,” the email reads. “There has been no public process and the community has not had any sort of opportunity to make their voice heard on this hugely important issue, so those steps should happen before NEPA.”

Councilor Hailey Morton-Levinson addressed the email directly at the meeting, questioning whether a letter accepting the master plan would, in fact, be an endorsement of it.

Not necessarily, said planning director Tyler Sinclair. The town could still direct opportunities for public comment, even after the letter was signed.

“The process is not binding,” said BTNF official Dale Dieter. “I can’t think of any project where the final decision reflected where it started. It’s always informed by public comment.”

Morton-Levinson also addressed the concern that “we don’t know how [the development] will impact wildlife.” NEPA, she said, examines exactly that.

Still, those who align with the Conservation Alliance fear a lack of public engagement should the NEPA process begin before the master plan is revised. Despite general manager Ryan Stanley’s assertion that Snow King has “done an extraordinary public feedback process,” Benjamin says it’s not enough.  Meetings that include free food and beer are “appreciated,” he said, “but that’s not really public process.”

The plan itself is also dated, Councilor Jim Stanford observed, and includes “many promises that haven’t been delivered on.”

“It’s not just about the recreational feature,” Stanford said. “There’s a built-in base, agreements and responsibilities that never came into fruition.”

Agreements like 600,000 square feet of developable land—the equivalent of six Marriots—that have yet to be developed. Without developments, the Alliance notes on its blog, there are “no corresponding public benefits” that original property owners agreed to provide 17 years ago.

But many who stood behind Snow King at Monday’s meeting were concerned with the hill’s economic future. Stanley pointed out that small resorts like Snow King across the country are dying. “It’s a tough ball game,” he said. “This winter was our best financially … and we still lost money. We want to make Snow King sustainable in the summer and winter.”

Even those who are “wary of development,” like Emily Coombs, recognized Snow King’s necessity to grow in order to survive. Snow King, Coombs pointed out, serves members of the community that don’t have access to Teton Village, like the valley’s growing Latino population. “I’ve met Max [Chapman, president] myself, and I believe him. He says he cares about the Latino community; I believe him.”

Benjamin agrees that no one wants to see Snow King fail. The question, he said, is “what’s the best way to move forward with development plans in a way that’s best for the community.”

“Everyone loves Snow King,” he said. “It belongs to all of us, it’s our public land. Everyone feels a sense of ownership of it, and rightfully so.”

After two hours of discussion and comment, councilors moved to continue the discussion to the next regularly scheduled town council meeting on June 5. Morton-Levinson said she felt more comfortable with the NEPA process after so much discussion, but Stanford and Mayor Pete Muldoon remained wary. “I can’t wait to ride on the gondola,” Muldoon said. “But it’s our responsibility to make sure we look into the details.”

Councilor Don Frank reminded citizens who are concerned with public input that engagement is as easy as showing up. “Snow King made significant efforts for public outreach,” he said. “I encourage citizens to pay attention to whatever process we engage in. Engage early, so you’re not coming to meetings feeling like the train’s left the station. The process is completely open if you pay attention.” PJH

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