No ranchettes for the rest of us in Jackson

Citizens of ritzy Wyoming town reject government-backed development

 

JACKSON, Wyo. - Featured on so many glossy magazine covers, the scene here has become emblematic of Western landscapes: pasture dotted with hay bales and grazing cattle, framed by snowy peaks against a blue sky. "On a day like today, I'd hate to see this place developed," says Jackson town council chair Chris Kirk. "But it's necessary for the future of this town."

Kirk's sense of resignation is at odds with the unspoken code followed by most growth-plagued New West communities: A developer proposes a project, followed by public outcry claiming the ruination of open space or a lack of affordable housing, and political leaders respond by rejecting or seriously amending the developer's proposal.

Here in Teton County, where more than 95 percent of the land is owned by the federal or state governments, Kirk says the problem is not enough development.

So three years ago, Kirk and other council members changed the role of Jackson's government from a regulatory spigot to a development booster. The town initiated a plan to annex and develop the 822-acre Jackson Hole Hereford Ranch. It would have been the largest single development ever in Jackson, ultimately increasing the town's current population of approximately 8,000 by as much as 50 percent.

As is typical in high-priced mountain hamlets across the West, many workers commute from distant places where housing is cheaper. In Jackson, this means a long trek from Idaho over Teton Pass - a treacherous drive in winter. So, the proposed development on the town's southern border planned to provide affordable housing and increase shopping and employment opportunities.

Ultimately, the development aimed to create a home for middle- and working-class people and help maintain a well-rounded community.

But Jackson's town leaders were trying to hit a home run, hoping to solve many problems with one swing. Their plan called for building 1,850 houses, apartments and condos, starting with 326 affordable units. Commercial development would have eventually included a business park, light industrial buildings and 250,000 square feet of retail (equivalent to several big-box stores). About 40 acres would have been preserved as parks and open space.

The town spent more than half a million dollars on the plan, hiring a private firm to help draft it, holding a year-and-a-half of public meetings to revise it. Town council members approved the final version in March by a 4-1 vote.

There was community-wide opposition to the plan, and a group called the Committee for a Better Jackson quickly formed, ran radio and newspaper ads and gathered enough signatures to force the plan to a May 7 referendum. Voters rejected the plan more than 2-1.

Most liked concept, not specifics

Some residents feared the development would ruin what remains of Jackson's rural character. Grand Teton National Park borders the local ski area, an elk refuge abuts downtown, and several rivers unfurl beneath some of the prettiest mountain ranges in the world.

"You don't have to look far to see how unique this valley's wildlife habitat is," says writer Ted Kerasote, who has lived in the area for over a decade. "Other (popular) Western valleys are built right up to the mountains."

Most people, however, including leaders of the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, feel that growth is inevitable and that the adjacent ranch is appropriate for town expansion. "The (town) council was proactive - they were thinking about the future of Jackson," says Margie Lynch of the Conservation Alliance.

Specifics in the plan became the sticking point. The town had a weak hand in negotiations over exactly how the land would be developed, because the owners, the heirs of rancher Robert Bruce Porter, were not pushing for annexation.

"The Porter family had specific ideas for ways they wanted their property developed that seriously limited the town's creative vision," says Lynch.

Teton County recently passed an ordinance that allows developers to build high densities if they provide at least 50 percent affordable housing. Yet the plan to develop the ranch barely met the town's requirement of 15 percent affordable housing, with subsidized employee apartments and deed-restricted houses and bare lots.

The plan solved nothing, says Sara Carroll, executive director of the Jackson Hole Community Housing Trust, because the construction and commercial development would have attracted an estimated 1,300 new employees, nearly filling up the affordable housing.

The new retail development away from downtown would have flooded roads with more traffic, and the need to build more schools and extend town services would have strained taxpayers, opponents said.

Overall, says lawyer Gary Shockey, who challenged the plan with a lawsuit, it was just too expensive. "Our taxes would have gone up and our services gone down."

So in the end, the Conservation Alliance, as well as typically pro-growth organizations - the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce and the Historic Downtown Business Association - were among the opposition that seemed to come from all directions.

Elements of class struggle?

The defeat will be tough on the relatively affordable rural development, Rafter J, which lies just past the ranch. Rafter J has houses on small lots and struggles to maintain aging sewers and roads. The ranch annexation would have helped connect Rafter J to town services, but now that is on hold.

The defeat prolongs many of the community's problems, says Mayor Jeannie Jackson, a populist who worked her way up from living in a trailer to owning a small house in town. The development "would have been a wonderful place, close to town, for families to live," she says. She blames wealthy immigrants who want to keep the valley to themselves, at the expense of working families.

The defeat may have some positive results. It has sparked discussion of how the town might refine its ordinances and work better with the county on a comprehensive affordable housing plan.

Meanwhile, the ranch remains a chunk of open space between clumps of houses. The Porter heirs don't want to lock it up in a conservation easement, nor do they plan to cut it into 35-acre parcels as state law allows.

One thing is clear: Although most people want changes in Jackson, they don't want it in one big dose.

Bryan Foster, a former HCN intern, lived in Jackson for two winters and now writes from Santa Fe, New Mexico.

YOU CAN CONTACT ...

  • Town of Jackson public information officer Shelley Simonton, 307/733-3932;
  • Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, Margie Lynch, 307/733-9417.

Copyright © 2002 HCN and Bryan Foster

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