The following piece was first published in Planet Jackson Hole as a guest opinion by Craig Benjamin.
Housing for our middle class, or more Marriotts?
It’s incredible that just one year ago Jackson was poised to become like Vail.
Vail isn’t a community; it’s a resort. Vail got this way in large part because of land use rules that encouraged too much commercial development and lodging, instead of housing for its workforce. Accordingly, Vail lost its balance and its heart as middle class residents were forced to move down valley so that at night, only visitors remained.
Only one year ago, our Town Council was considering proposed zoning changes for downtown Jackson – known as District 2 – that wouldn’t have provided anywhere near enough housing affordable to people who work here while encouraging a dramatic expansion of commercial development, lodging, short-term rentals, and higher-end condos (i.e. second homes), generating new low-wage jobs, staffed by new low-wage employees, who need new affordable places to live. These proposed zoning changes would have put Jackson on a path to following in Vail’s footsteps toward becoming just another resort. And only one year ago, these zoning changes looked destined for approval, supported by a vocal and powerful handful of property owners who stood to individually benefit from these proposed changes.
Then something incredible happened.
Over the past year, hundreds of your friends and neighbors decided to rise up, make their voices heard, and speak up for a better future. At numerous public meetings, people like you walked to the podium, took a deep breath, and told their story.
Young professionals described their struggle to plan for a family and future in Jackson due to the instability and uncertainty surrounding their housing situations. Small business owners explained how they keep losing employees who can’t afford to live here. Nonprofit leaders shared how exhausted they were from continually having hard-working families coming to them in tears after being priced out of yet another home. These were the stories of people who have fallen in love with this place and this community and just want to find a way to stay.
When not offered opportunities to tell their story, the community still found ways to constructively engage in our civic process. Like one beautiful evening last June when nearly 50 of your friends and neighbors, at the orchestration of the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, took time out from their busy lives and packed town hall to respectfully tell our town councilors to align our downtown land development regulations with the vision and values of our community with signs like “Housing, not hotels,” and “Middle class, not Marriotts.”
Then something even more incredible happened: these stories started to have an impact.
In January, the Jackson Town Council and Teton County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously in support of planning staff’s recommendation to not add additional commercial and lodging development potential on top of the more than five million square feet of existing commercial and lodging entitlements.
Even better, building on this unanimous vote, the Jackson Town Council is now considering proposed updates to the District 2 zoning regulations that align with our Comprehensive Plan, address our housing challenge, and would help keep Jackson a strong community.
Here’s the thing: our elected representatives weren’t just swayed by personal stories; they also considered the facts. Facts like the crystal clear language in our Comprehensive Plan that states, “Community character will be preserved by limiting overall development in the community to the amount that has been allowed and planned for since 1994.”
Facts like planning staff looking at independent market analysis, speaking with knowledgeable folks in the community, and stating, “Everyone appears to agree that there will not be demand for additional nonresidential potential in the next 20 years above and beyond the amount allowed by the ‘1994’ (current) land development regulations.” That’s right, the facts and data show we don’t need more commercial and lodging development potential for at least 20 years.
And the glaring fact that, outside of a handful of property owners who stand to individually benefit from additional commercial and lodging development potential, nearly our entire community stands united in support of prioritizing housing our middle class over more new Marriotts.
Look, nearly everyone agrees downtown Jackson is the heart of our community and the economic engine of our region. Nearly everyone shares the vision of a downtown Jackson that’s vibrant and walkable with a balanced mix of housing, lodging, and commercial enterprises, But there’s disagreement over how to make this vision reality. Most of us look at the facts and data and see a twenty-plus year supply of existing commercial and lodging entitlements and believe we should prioritize housing for our middle class in order to get some built. Others appear determined to take Jackson down the path of Vail.
All of this is why it is so disappointing to see the vocal and powerful handful of property owners who stand to individually benefit from additional commercial and lodging development potential continuing their misguided fight. It’s even more disappointing that some of these property owners have resorted to attacking nonprofit organizations, instead of constructively working toward solutions (see “Stop the Blame Game” in the March 29, 2016 Planet JH). And it’s most disappointing the Town Planning and Zoning Commission did not recommend the new zoning proposal for District 2 despite the unanimous vote supporting its direction from the Town Council and County Commission, the overwhelming public support, and the facts and data indicating they should do so.
On April 19th, the Town Council will consider finalizing updates to the District 2 zoning regulations. Given the pushback these proposed updates have already seen, the Council needs our support to continue down the right track.
Visit jhalliance.org/district2 to write Town Council and tell your story to help create a better future for Jackson Hole. If we rise together and make our voices heard, we can give our elected representatives the support they need to do the right thing and make something incredible happen.
Craig Benjamin is the executive director of the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance. Email comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.