Moratorium Will ‘Press Pause’ on Commercial Development

By on March 22, 2018

JACKSON HOLE, WY – The Jackson Town Council made a move Wednesday in the name of the valley’s housing crisis that drew ire from developers and land and business owners. During an “emergency meeting,” the council passed an ordinance to pause new developments for up to 180 days. Developers worried about the burden the moratorium will place on the construction and design industries. But town officials emphasized it will only impact larger projects—those that create an unsustainable need for more employee housing.

The special council meeting was announced 24 hours prior, which town attorney Audrey Cohen-Davis said was well within the town’s legal right. Still, overwhelming public comment condemned both the moratorium and the perceived hastiness of the decision.

An LDR by any other name

Town officials are in the process of reviewing and adopting new Land Development Regulations (LDRs) that will likely impose higher mitigation/affordable housing requirements on large commercial developments. The moratorium, Mayor Pete Muldoon said, serves to prevent a surge of large projects trying to get their applications in “under the wire” under old LDRs.  

“As we move into Engage 2017, it’s clear the community wants widespread changes,” Muldoon said. Engage 2017 is a Town and County initiative to elicit public feedback related to housing, parking and natural resources.

The planning department, Muldoon said, is “ill-equipped” to handle a potential influx of applications before new LDRs are expected to pass in July. Projects that have already applied are safe, as are certain residential units, or any basic use permit or building permit.

“It’s not a halt to development,” Muldoon said. “It’s rather a question of whether, in the context of updates to LDRs, pushing pause would be wise.”

During the public comment period, attorney Stefan Fodor read the Black Law Dictionary law of “emergency” to the council. The current circumstances, he said, do not match that definition.

“This violates every tenant of due process in the constitution,” Fodor said. “The current regulations are valid. Whether they have a negative effect or not, they’re still valid. And absent an emergency, I don’t think the council has any power to change that.”

The decision also risks damaging the construction industry, residents at the meeting argued. Certain projects could lose optimal time—Jackson’s construction season is short, thanks to its long winters. “This could push projects to the next construction season,” Amberley Baker said. “Significant time and cost goes into preparing for the sketch plan phase. Workers in the construction trade could suffer.”

But planning department director Tyler Sinclair said it’s unlikely any new applications would actually be impacted. The application and town approval process is long and arduous, he said, and even a project application submitted, say, today, would take at least 90 days to be approved. It’s unlikely anyone would break ground this summer. “Mathematically, it is possible to do those steps between now and July 2,” he said. “Whether  they could actually achieve it, I’m not sure.”

Still, the moratorium effectively means anyone working on an application has to press pause until they know what the new LDRs are, and how to adhere to them.

But the moratorium is primarily concerned with large-scale projects. If the council approved such a project now, and allowed a new hotel, for example, to proceed under current LDRs, construction wouldn’t end until well after new LDRs were implemented. “I couldn’t look people straight-faced in five years and say, ‘Sorry, they got in under the wire,’” Councilor Hailey Morton-Levinson said. “I think these are really important questions that the whole community is grappling with.

The moratorium passed 4-0, with councilor Don Frank absent. An emergency ordinance requires a three-quarter vote to pass. Council has the power to repeal the ordinance if they decide it was the wrong choice. As it stands, the moratorium is in effect for 180 days, or until new LDRs are implemented and they lift it—whichever comes first.

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