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Lawmakers ask Jackson officials about housing crisis solutions

 

Jackson Hole Wyoming

By Hannah Shields
Wyoming Tribune Eagle
Via- Wyoming News Exchange

CHEYENNE — County and city officials insisted on Thursday that the issue of affordable housing can only be regulated at the local level.

A running joke during the Legislature’s Regulation Reduction Task Force meeting in Jackson was that Teton County was its own state. Jackson resident Taylor Phillips said he was on a fishing trip when he told a person he encountered where he lived. The person told him, “Oh, you ought to move to Wyoming one day.”

All jokes aside, though, this conversation illustrated the unique barriers and challenges faced by each county and city across Wyoming. Teton County carries the burden of wealthy out-of-state buyers purchasing homes in Jackson. Sublette County has miles upon miles of precious wildlife corridors that are mitigated.

Mayors and county commissioners told lawmakers that statewide legislation will only do more harm than good. What they did ask of the state, however, was to provide the tools necessary to support community efforts.

Wyoming Planning Association (Wyo-PASS) President Angela Parker said a lot of smaller communities lack the staff and resources to quickly process permits for affordable housing projects.

“It’s usually in smaller communities that (have a) one-person office, and they’re working on septic permits, right of way permits, building permits, all of those things that fall under their purview,” Parker said. “They have limited time, but they try to get them done as quickly as they can.”

Sublette County associate planner Tess Soll said it’s important that smaller communities be a part of the conversation, after seeing so much focus on Jackson and Teton County.

While following the progress of these task force meetings, Soll said she hasn’t heard a lot of personal anecdotes from other towns and counties.

“It’s just me and one other guy, my boss,” Soll said.

She said over 95% of her county, which is run through with streaks of wildlife corridors, is in court. Sage grouse dwell in this part of Wyoming, and this affects private property owners. Soll estimated mitigation fees cost approximately $6,000 per acre of disturbance.

“We have our first major subdivision in about 10 years, and it might not happen because of those impact fees,” Soll said. “That would be pretty substantial for the developer.”

Her worry was that state legislation would only burden smaller counties “that only have a staff of two and saddle us with doing more.”

“We just can’t do more and implement more,” Soll said. “We’re doing it all right now.”

Pinedale Mayor Matt Murdock said his city is ranked fourth in the state for one of the most expensive places to live. The median rent for a two-bedroom house increased 51% since 2020, he said, and health care costs increased 26%. The community is also seeing an increase in the number of people who want to live there.

Sage grouse and other migration patterns, however, impact the community’s ability to build more affordable housing. Not to mention the people of Pinedale are “very independent minded,” he said, and are resistant to change.

“We need the state Legislature to give us tools,” Murdock said. “It allows us as local governments to apply those tools to our unique situation.”



Slowing growth in Teton County

Rep. Clark Stith, R-Rock Springs, asked stakeholders if there were any lessons learned from one of Wyoming’s wealthiest cities that could be applied to the rest of the state.

“Are there things that you’re doing here that we can learn from?” Stith said.

The other side of the coin, he added, was whether there were current county regulations “so onerous and so offensive to the notion of private property rights” that required the state to step in and shut them down.

To discourage the growth of expensive homes and businesses, Jackson imposes mitigation regulations and fees on large housing development and businesses. The impact of job creation is more housing is needed for those additional employees, a Jackson Hole Working group report stated.

Employers also hold some responsibility to help find their employees affordable housing.

“We’re under tremendous political pressure here,” said Teton County Board of Commissioners Chairman Luke Propst. “For everyone we hear from that wants more development that helps the market … we hear from somebody else who’s just as concerned with the congestion.”

Jackson Mayor Hailey Levinson said her community is reconsidering its mitigation rates, which have already been reduced to relieve the burden on small businesses.

Former state legislator Ruth Ann Petroff, who currently works with Jackson Hole Working, said “it would be reasonable” to assume that the purpose of these fees is to stop growth “to some extent.”

Deed-restricted homes, which are workforce houses or affordable dwelling units, are exempted from these fees, Petroff said. Cheyenne attorney Cindy DeLancey, who sat on the panel of task force members, said this came across as a policy choice to incentivize affordable housing development.

Petroff confirmed this observation, but added most people do not opt into this incentive. At the same time, larger developments are required to include deed-restricted units. Teton County resident Jen Ford said there were some regulations in the county that seemed to be weaponized against housing development. She said the heavy regulations imposed by the city are increasing costs and delaying development.

“I don’t think, as a resident, we want (the state) to be overreaching or prescriptive,” Ford said. “But I do think what we wanted, and what many of us want, and, we can’t even say it because of the nature of the climate right now, is some of the things that are going down here are not right.”

 

Development on state, private land 

Propst said Teton County has a limited land supply and nearly unlimited demand for housing, which creates hardship on residents. Two options discussed during the meeting were the potential for swapping out public land to add subdivisions and negotiating deals with property owners to build on private lands.

Northern South Park landowner Nikki Gill comes from a family of ranchers who volunteered to donate their land to housing development.

However, their first request to rezone the land was rejected by the Jackson City Council. This not only delayed affordable housing development but increased construction costs.

Gill added that heavy regulations slowed down the development process. Her family incurred costs “well above a six-figure amount” from applications, hearings and studies over the past few years.

Sen. Stacy Jones, R-Rock Springs, asked Teton County commissioners how this process could be accelerated.

“All we’ve heard in the past few days is how much you need this housing, you have a subdivision that’s ready to go,” Jones said. “What can be done?”

Commissioner Mark Newcomb said it’s a difficult and almost political process, with some residents calling him “mean and nasty” names. It’s a balance between coming up with an approved master plan and zoning laws for affordable housing development on donated land, while also holding the best interest of the community as a whole.

“It was critical to us as commissioners to recognize that these are private properties and to include the owners in the process,” Newcomb said.

Former longtime Wyoming lawmaker Eli Bebout, who sat on the task force, asked Propst about potential land swaps for additional subdivisions. Propst said there were areas in Teton County that could be exchanged, but he was wary of making the situation worse.

“We don’t want to dig the hole deeper by building housing that just creates more jobs,” Propst said.

 

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