Developer paralyzes Jackson's new plan
They had spent an agonizing three years writing and revising the document. A small army of consultants and lawyers finally sanctioned it. Thousands of hours of public hearings had been logged. At the final hearing before adoption, hardly a whimper of protest was heard.
What officials did not anticipate was the cunning of developer Jere Bishop. Bishop owns nine acres of prime undeveloped West Jackson commercial property. The new plan would downzone the land, shrinking the size of the massive hotel and restaurant complex Bishop hoped to build there.
But Bishop unearthed an obscure provision in Wyoming law that threatens the plan. For now, the new zoning scheme has been suspended, pending a vote by town residents Jan. 31.
Bishop made use of a provision in the state elections code that allows for 10 percent of registered voters to suspend government decisions by petition. If the petition is deemed valid, the government ruling is brought before the public in a special election.
To get signatures, Bishop and a group of volunteers wielded their petition outside key locations like the local Albertson's supermarket. They approached residents asking: "Wouldn't you like to have a chance to vote on the new comprehensive plan?"
Who could say no? By the 10-day petition deadline, Bishop had amassed 781 signatures - well above the 10 percent mark he needed for a valid public mandate.
The petition and suspension of the plan makes town councilman Abe Tabatabai furious. A former planning commissioner who worked on the earliest drafts of the plan, Tabatabai says the petition misrepresented the issues.
"I want to tell you about my disappointment," he says. "It's not because of the thousands of hours we spent on the plan. It's because of the way I think the petition was presented to the public."
Now, Tabatabai says, the election might "not be a true reflection of what the community wants." He notes that officials entered into the master-planning process because of widespread pro-planning sentiment three years ago.
Other town officials did what they could to dismantle Bishop's efforts. Town Administrator Bill Westbrook found his own arcane statute for disqualifying public petitions: Wyoming law holds that the town administrator has final say over whether a petition is legitimate.
Westbrook delayed validating the petition for two weeks. Though many more than the needed 456 residents had signed the mandate, most had listed their mailing addresses. Technically, registered voters must use their residential addresses on petitions, Westbrook said.
Until the special election, the town will abide by its former, less-restrictive regulations. This has meant yet another waiting game for developers who were prepared to bring their projects in under the new zoning laws.
A major feature of the plan confines lodging projects to an area downtown (Bishop's land was not included in that area). The plan also limits the size and extent of commercial developments, prohibits large condo buildings from some residential zones and provides a fee in lieu of building a parking structure for downtown business owners.
* Matt Testa
The writer works for the Jackson Hole News.