Jackson can't agree on growth

A decade after a model planning effort, Jackson’s downtown is stagnant, while its workers are priced out

  • The view of Jackson from Snow King Mountain

    Mark Cocke

JACKSON, WYOMING — A decade ago, this tourist mecca in the shadow of spectacular Grand Teton National Park seemed to be a step ahead of the growth and sprawl that have plagued so many other destination communities in the West. Community workshops in the early 1990s led to town and county land-use plans aimed at preserving open space, wildlife habitat, affordable housing and small-town character.

The plans were viewed as so progressive that the Conservation Fund and the Sonoran Institute featured Jackson in their 1997 smart-growth guidebook, Balancing Nature and Commerce in Gateway Communities.

But a quick trip to Jackson these days reveals that the best-laid plans have not prevented a development boom. Outside of town, traffic runs thick along Highway 22 as it passes through a string of new shopping centers and fancy rural subdivisions, occupying lands once the domain of the area’s famous elk and deer herds. In the 1990s, the town’s population nearly doubled in size to 8,647 residents, while Teton County’s population grew by 63 percent to 18,000, making it the fastest-growing county in the state.

Everyone, from the mayor to developers, recognizes that Jackson needs a new land-use plan, but so far, consensus has been hard to come by. Voters have shot down two recent smart-growth proposals for the town. The last, a long-anticipated downtown redevelopment plan, was trounced in December, sending frustrated town leaders back to the drawing board.

Once again, Jackson is the center of attention for its work on growth. Only this time, the question is not whether the community can prevent growth on its fringes, but whether it can encourage growth within its center.

Growing up, rather than out

The land-use plans for Jackson and Teton County have successfully preserved significant open space and wildlife habitat outside town. But in other ways they have backfired. In a county where 97 percent of the land is publicly owned, the open-space initiatives and restrictions on subdivisions further constricted an already limited amount of developable private land, just as a surge in second-home seekers and speculators hit town. The result was predictable: a building boom for the rich — and skyrocketing real estate prices that forced much of Jackson’s workforce to seek cheaper homes beyond county borders.

Mark Barron, Jackson’s current mayor, says the 1994 town plan, which was designed to preserve the town’s character by limiting large development projects, also backfired. Zoning in town is so restrictive that downtown development has come to a screeching halt, Barron says.

To address these problems, town planners proposed a redevelopment plan known as "town as heart of region." By relaxing zoning and building-height restrictions, they hoped to create a pedestrian-friendly downtown with second- or third-story apartments and affordable condominiums above newly built office and retail space. With more residents within walking distance of their jobs, commuting and traffic problems would, in theory, be reduced.

Downtown redevelopment of this type is the cornerstone of planning strategies in many gateway communities. Western smart-growth advocates such as the Sonoran Institute, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition and the Yellowstone Business Partnership enthusiastically backed the idea. Jackson’s popular mayor embraced "town as heart" as a top priority.

A snowball of opposition

But when the town council approved the Jackson Downtown Redevelopment District last September — turning "town as heart" into policy — disagreement over the plan quickly snowballed into determined opposition. A small group of citizens, led by Jackson Hole native Ben Clark, successfully petitioned for a voter referendum on the issue.

Clark’s organization, the Committee to Save Historic Jackson, accused the council of ignoring public input, and raised the specter of a congested downtown with blocked views, parking shortages and a slew of new buildings that would destroy the town’s "Western character." The plan did nothing to slow growth in the county, added Clark, so Jackson was likely to get the worst of both worlds: a congested town and suburban sprawl.

Local conservation organizations supported the "town as heart" plan in theory, but withheld their endorsement, citing the same lack of coordination between town and county. The Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance also faulted the plan for not mandating more affordable housing and parking, according to the Alliance’s program director, Margie Lynch. On Dec. 9, Jackson voters nixed the plan by a 2-1 margin.

Todd Machjer, a landscape architect who helped develop the plan’s architectural guidelines, says opponents obscured the fact that the plan sought to preserve the town’s Western character by requiring new development to fit the context of surrounding buildings. Town Councilman Mark Obringer says criticism of the plan’s parking provisions was also unfounded. An independent study of the plan found that while parking would not necessarily be on-site, it was perfectly adequate. "That’s Teton County," Obringer says. "We climb the Grand (Teton) on Sunday, but won’t walk 500 feet from the parking lot."

In the wake of the referendum, the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance organized two community "conversations" on growth in January. The themes and proposed solutions were déjà vu all over again: agreeable ideas on slowing construction, clustering housing, and maintaining open space, but no specific policies the community can agree on in sight.

The Alliance’s Lynch remains optimistic that "town as heart" is not dead. "I think there’s enough general support for the concept that with some work the downtown redevelopment proposal could be reintroduced."

But Mayor Barron doubts whether he can resuscitate "town as heart" any time soon. "You’ve heard the expression ‘political capital’?" he asked. "Well, I spent all mine on this."

The author reports from Driggs, Idaho.

This article was made possible with support from the EMA Foundation.

Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance Franz Camenzind, 307-733-9417, www.jhalliance.com

Jackson Planning Department 307-733-0440, www.ci.jackson.wy.us

The Committee to Save Historic Jackson Ben Clark, 307-732-0408, [email protected]

High Country News Classifieds