During my visit to Jackson, Bloom and other conservationists cite many reasons why South Park should not be the site of big new developments, including car-dependent sprawl, bad math (every new home, even if it's affordable, requires additional affordable housing for construction and maintenance workers), and -- the most powerful trump card in Jackson -- intrusion on wildlife habitat.
Even the affordable housing advocates disagree over some of the big South Park proposals. Generally, though, they think that the opposition boils down to "Not In My Back Yard" and general no-growth sentiment. Not only is South Park's vacant land surrounded by similar neighborhoods, they note, the town's main sewer line runs along the edge, making hookups easy. The land has long been grazed by livestock, much of the grass isn't native, and part of it is already a gravel mine. Public schools and a grocery store strip mall are located in the South Park area, as well.
"More than any other location in Jackson, (South Park) best symbolizes the affordable housing battle," says Bill Collins, director of county planning from 1993 to 2004, who's now a consultant. "It's a perfectly logical place for development, with utilities, good access and minimal natural resources, yet it's a lightning rod." (Collins' personal housing saga: He owns an ordinary house with some nice features, in a town neighborhood that demonstrates the chaos. The house next door is owned by an Oregon venture capitalist who occupies it only from July 4 to Christmas. Next to that is a modular rented to four to seven young people at any given time, with a great deal of turnover and a clutter of parked cars. The house across the street is owned by the hospital and occupied by its CEO.)
Bruce Smith, a longtime wildlife biologist at the National Elk Refuge who's retired to Montana, tells me, "I've always advocated that grazing land, modified land where grass was planted for livestock -- like South Park -- is appropriate for development," especially if it includes affordable housing. Kelly Lockhart, the landowner who wanted to do the Teton Meadows development, says, "People here don't want anything built on vacant land next to them, even if it's affordable housing."
"I took quite a few hits," says Anne Cresswell, director of the Community Housing Trust, recalling the uproar when her nonprofit partnered with the Teton Meadows developer on the plan to build a lot more affordable housing in South Park. "The community fought it tooth and nail. There were ugly attacks on me and my board members in the newspaper." (Cresswell's housing saga: She and her husband, a math teacher, got into the game about 15 years ago by buying a mobile home for $36,000. It was right on a highway noisy with semi-trucks, but they sold it five years later for $75,000. "This must be the only place in the country where mobile-home prices appreciate," she says. They used that profit to buy a restricted lot from the Housing Authority for $38,000, built a home and sold it for limited profit to a qualified applicant. Finally they were able to buy "a funky old" free-market house in town -- just 1,400 square feet, more than 70 years old, worth about $715,000; their mortgage payments run about $3,600 per month.)
Opponents of the big proposals also talk about preserving Jackson's "Western small-town character." That's also debatable. If you live in town, when the weather and tourist traffic allow, you can bike or walk to stores and theaters and the library, with views of publicly owned hillsides and peaks. And the desire for small-scale in-town developments fits with a national trend, says Clark Anderson, the Colorado author of a recent Sonoran Institute study on housing demands. "More and more people want walkable neighborhoods, convenient to shopping, jobs and recreation, with a sense of place –– neighborhoods that feel like they have character." But Jackson is also the kind of Western small town where an art gallery will sell you a prehistoric rhinoceros skull for $35,000. Other stores specialize in Tahitian and South Sea pearls, fantastic antler chandeliers that sprout bare-breasted mermaid sculptures, and mink coats dyed in a purple jaguar pattern. Ten life-size bronze wolves are displayed on a sidewalk near the square -- for $85,000 you can buy the whole pack. A few blocks away, there's a 41,000-square-foot Center for the Arts with spaces for dance, theater, music and painting. Those are also part of this community's character, so the defenders aren't saving a typical Western town -- far from it.
The clearest example of NIMBYism, according to many -- especially those who favor the smaller affordable housing projects -- is Peter Moyer, a flamboyant lawyer and avid trout fisherman, whose résumé boasts both Princeton and the Marine Corps. When I meet Moyer in his office near the square, he offers me his pet ferret for stroking (it has soft fur and sleeps in a file box), and we marvel at the 228-pound tarpon that he's displayed on a wall; after he caught that monster fish off the Florida coast with a fly rod and measly 16-pound line, Outside magazine named him a "Badass of the Year" in 2008. (He released the tarpon and had a sculpture of it made for display.) When we shift to affordable housing, Moyer says, "I have concerns about the push. Affordable housing sounds great, you love that diversity in a community, but you have to be careful how it's done." Then he criticizes "affordable housing zealotry" and "the angst" over people who think they're "entitled to housing in Jackson." He cites the "wonderful small-town atmosphere" and warns me, "If you try to house anyone who wants to live and work here, it's going to become a city."
Like other opponents of affordable housing projects here, Moyer does more than just talk. He fired off a lawsuit against the County Housing Authority, because he opposed one of its smallest projects, among other reasons. That battle began when the Housing Authority bought 5.2 acres in his neighborhood for more than $2 million in 2007, planning to either build a few new units there eventually or use it an investment, anticipating the land would increase in value. It's a loosely planned neighborhood a few miles west of town on Cheney Lane, "not a rich guy's neighborhood," Moyer says, where the existing development ranges from rustic cabins to a church camp to a few nice houses. Moyer has the nicest one in the neighborhood -- 3,000 square feet on seven acres, which he's occupied for decades. The Housing Authority parcel is right across the street; it already had a few small houses on it, but he didn't want the agency to build more units there, so he organized neighbors to join him as plaintiffs in his lawsuit. He also thought the agency was misusing millions of dollars raised through a special voter-approved tax, because it was spending some of the money on a new headquarters -- so he rolled that into the lawsuit, charging that the agency's process violated several laws. He calls it "a government agency out of control ... outrageous!"
Moyer's lawsuit dragged on in state courts for six years and reached the Wyoming Supreme Court twice. Moyer prevailed on some of the lawsuit's claims but finally, a few days before we met, the Supreme Court's second ruling came down against him, and the case apparently expired. Moyer sees it as a "victory" because he aired his complaints and slowed down the Housing Authority. The county spent more than $100,000 defending the lawsuit, according to Christine Walker, the Housing Authority director. Moyer "wanted the Housing Authority to abandon the project and sell the land," Walker says, "and he failed."
(Walker's housing saga: She moved to Jackson as a ski bum in 1989 and got a series of jobs that led to her becoming the Housing Authority director in 2006. She camped out for the first year, then lived in someone's garage. About 15 years ago, before the big price boom, she and her husband bought a lot in South Park and built a home; they sold that house and now live in an "eclectic workforce housing neighborhood" that includes cabins and yurts, southwest of town. "It's not a desirable neighborhood for second homes," she says, which helps make it affordable for her.)