THE BUZZ: Devil in the Details

By on December 22, 2015

Officials debate the ins and outs of Jackson’s future.

The Mead family’s 380-acre easement, secured by Jackson Hole Land Trust, lies just beyond the 211-acre Hansen Ranch (seen in the foreground) in Spring Gulch. (Photo: drew rush)

The Mead family’s 380-acre easement, secured by Jackson Hole Land Trust, lies just beyond the 211-acre Hansen Ranch (seen in the foreground) in Spring Gulch. (Photo: drew rush)

County crushes conservation

County officials met last week to finalize rural Land Development Regulations (LDRs) for various districts including amendments to Division 6.1, the establishment of three new zones in Division 3.2, and updates to conservation easements in Division 7.1. The LDRs were unanimously adopted during a county meeting Tuesday morning.

But as the pen hovered over the dotted line last week, commissioners received an outpouring of public comment on property owners’ options for conservation. Others were concerned with unintended consequences of adopting policies in District 3.2 that could disallow educational outreach at places like the Teton Raptor Center and Teton Science Schools.

The Jackson Hole Land Trust led the way with a strongly worded letter urging elected officials to move the required baseline inventory process — a de facto Environmental Assessment study — to the final stages of an easement deed rather than a prerequisite to submitting an application with the county planning department. The Land Trust also objected to language that it felt would hamstring large landowners’ ability to seek accessory uses with conservation easements — things like weddings and other events. Neighbors have often complained about hearing more than cowbells from adjacent ranches.

“[This] is a deal breaker,” said Laurie Andrews, executive director of the Land Trust. “Brad Mead would not have done his recent easement if this was on the books. You are killing conservation before it happens.”

Former commissioner Hank Phibbs also advised the board to reconsider how conservation easements would be handled in the future.

“I had the curse of being involved in planning in this valley since 1973,” Phibbs began. “I strongly support the changes recommended by the Land Trust. Those are the folks who have the track record, the history and the perspective. The county should not get in the way of conservation easements.”

Deidre Bainbridge owns property bordering the Serenity Ranch. The agricultural 209-acre parcel was once owned and operated by the Hansen family. It has been protected by easement since 2001.

“You have a duty as commissioners to protect our property rights,” Bainbridge said. “You’ve excluded things like noise from parties or sprinklers, fencing, lighting. What’s the point of having an NRO [Natural Resource Overlay zoning] and pretending we care about wildlife corridors when ranchers can fence and chase away wildlife any hour of the day or night as they please?”

Planning commissioner Stephen Fodor said commissioners should carefully balance private property rights with wildlife and open space. “The county seems to be implementing its own judgment on what is open space. That’s troubling. Trust the Land Trust on this one,” he said. Fodor added that he also had the backing of two of the biggest landowners in the county: Bill Resor and Kelly Lockhart.

“I’ve worked on about 20 conservation easements for the family over the years. I’ve also seen about 12 easements that never happened because the board of county commissioners said, ‘No, we don’t want to do it,’” Resor said. “Remove some barriers and you may get one, or two, or three more easements. Otherwise, you won’t know what you missed. You are impacting existing uses, and stopping future uses and not even know it.”

Lockhart made the most impassioned plea to the commissioners.

“I’ve been the fortunate caretaker of certain R1 lands that have been in the family for generations. My family has applied to the county, and we are not too far away from doing an easement under the old regulations. You have made it difficult and are making it more difficult to do conservation. So I can tell you for certain that as long as I am the caretaker of these lands and your regulations look like they do, I would be very nervous about doing future easements. It shouldn’t be a secret why,” Lockhart said.

“Other multigenerational stewardship families I’ve discussed it with also feel this way. People move on, and we pick up the pieces of what you’ve done. I hope this works for the community, first of all for my family and for future generations. Because I suspect families will come before future boards and the only consistency will be the families are still here and your faces will have changed.”

Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance community planning director Mary Gibson called the majority feedback “legitimate, honest and real” and said she was comfortable with what major landholders were asking for.

“When Laurie [Andrews] asked Brad [Mead] if he would have done his easements or consider any in the future under the new proposed regulations and he said, ‘No,’ well, that should tell you something. We are disappointed that it doesn’t look like that change will be made,” Gibson said, referring to an informal straw poll vote that indicates commissioners are leaning (3-2) toward not asking staff to make any more revisions.

Amy McCarthy, of the Teton Raptor Center, asked the board to reconsider “education and assembly,” which would be prohibited uses in certain NRO zones like those proposed for the Teton Raptor Center and Teton Science Schools.

Science schools director Chris Agnew echoed her comments. “We own almost 1,000 acres in the NRO. We’ve developed only 15 of these acres. We do education. This penalizes us for sacrifices we’ve made,” he said.

Before the county commissioners once again tabled a final decision (the next meeting will be Jan. 13 on rural LDRs), former county planning director Jeff Daugherty asked that a Reader’s Digest version of the murky documents be created.

“I think readability and comprehensibility should be considered,” Daugherty said. “If Fodor and I are struggling with understanding this, how can the public or the commission get through it?”

“If you can make it more understandable, please do,” commission chair Barbara Allen told long-range planner Alex Norton.

Town kills commercial

As long as the county has been flogging away at LDR revisions, the town has been languishing in those final stages of the Comp Plan as well. Town planner Tyler Sinclair modestly called it a “fair amount of time,” but council members have seen proposed District 2 LDR regulations since the spring of 2013.

After a summer packed with traffic and “housing needed” ads, town officials have finally seen the light and seem poised on following staff recommendations that no additional nonresidential development is necessary in Jackson.

But zero doesn’t exactly mean zero. An estimated 1.9 million square feet of latent commercial zoning sits on the books from the 1994 Comp Plan. That should be plenty for the next 20 years, staffers have stated, saying it’s time now to get housing on the ground.

At Monday’s town workshop, councilors seemed in agreement as they head into another joint meeting with the county to make a final decision on Downtown District 2 LDRs. Councilor Don Frank asked staff if there was some way to monitor progress toward the building of workforce housing.

“How onerous would it be to issue a quarterly report?” asked Frank. “I think the whole community would love to have some check-ins on empirical growth in the town and county. A go-to point so that no matter what you hear, or read, or think — this would be anecdotal evidence. I think it would help put things into perspective and ease anxiety for people to see the actual number of building permits or some real data.”

Sinclair said that could easily be done.

As to how and why municipal leaders are poised to scrap any new nonresidential development, Craig Benjamin, JH Alliance executive director, said he thinks the easiest and least costly way to put housing on the ground is to not increase nonresidential potential.

“I would say our community has spoken loud and clear over the past six months,” Benjamin said. “This idea implements the 2012 Comprehensive Plan as written and is in alignment with the visions of our community.”

Town officials are also struggling with how to handle nonconforming properties in town. A value-based methodology discourages some landowners from doing simple maintenance and minor upgrades. A few older properties, like the old Bubba’s site, lie fallow because its owners would be required to come into compliance — a costly proposition the way regulations are currently being proposed, according to Frank.

The biggest problem with town staffers’ handling of nonconformities is there is no one size fits all, said Jim Stanford. Planner Paul Anthony agreed, saying, there are some situations where the town would like to see a historic building remain no matter how nonconforming it is, and other instances where the town would rather a building be razed for a newer, better one. PJH


About Jake Nichols

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