The following piece was first published in Planet Jackson Hole as a guest opinion by Alliance Executive Director Craig Benjamin.
Why the public has to get involved with Phase 2 development of the town hill.
I’ve got too many great memories from Snow King to count, and I bet you do too.
From sucking wind on my first hike to the summit, to bootpacking/skinning up and skiing down during the winter, to watching my kids proudly climb and conquer the boulders at Phil Baux Park, to attending concerts with friends and family, to celebrating the independence of our nation, to tubing shenanigans, to the madness of Hill Climb, to buying locally grown food at the People’s Market—Snow King has played a central role in my Jackson Hole life.
The King is where our kids learn to ski, skate, and play hockey. It’s where we train to climb bigger mountains and go for leisurely lunchtime strolls with our friends. It’s where we ride our mountain bikes, trail run, eat crawfish, enjoy great music, celebrate, and come together as a community.
Town Square might be the tourist hub of our town, but Snow King is the living room of Jackson Hole and the heart of the community.
For many of us, it feels like Snow King belongs to our community. In fact, it does. Nearly all of the Snow King land on which we play is owned by the Town of Jackson or the Bridger-Teton National Forest, meaning it’s our public land.
Then there’s the dozens of acres of private land at the base, which are governed by what’s called the Snow King Resort Master Plan, a special zoning designation that gives property owners development rights in exchange for the provision of public benefits. Approved by the Town and County more than 15 years ago, the plan gave copious development rights to property owners, approximately 600,000 square feet of which remain to this day (the equivalent of six Marriotts). In return for these development rights, property owners agreed to provide public benefits like a convention center, access to our public lands, sidewalks and a pedestrian plaza, preserved open space, and employee housing.
Except that over the past 15 years, almost no development happened at Snow King. With no development there were no corresponding public benefits. Meanwhile, despite the best intentions of the previous owners, the ski area languished and hemorrhaged money during winter operations.
This situation changed dramatically two years ago when a group of investors bought Snow King Resort, along with much of the land at the base, and set about to revitalize the resort. The new ownership group quickly completed a range of projects, funded through both private and millions of public dollars, aimed at making the resort profitable; including improved snowmaking infrastructure, a ropes course, a mountain coaster, and a rebuilt Rafferty lift with new ski runs.
In a rush to get these projects completed to get the resort in the black, the owners of Snow King got them approved with minimal analysis and comment from citizens, denying our community an opportunity for public input.
Regardless how one feels about the merits of these projects, the rushed approval process for these projects left many in the community riled about the lack of public participation.
Now, Snow King is proposing what’s called their “Phase 2 Development Plan,” a suite of projects including a gondola and new road to the summit, a top-to-bottom zip line, lift-accessed mountain bike trails, a “first class” restaurant on the summit to replace the Panorama House, an observatory, and significant boundary expansions to the east and west to increase skiable terrain and north into Phil Baux Park (you can read the entire proposal for yourself at snowkingmountain.com/mountain/master-plan/). If implemented, this plan will have significant impacts on both Snow King and our entire community.
Once again, regardless of how one feels about the merits of the specific projects proposed as part of this plan, it’s important they all go through a comprehensive public review process. Then we will not only understand their impacts, we can ensure their implementation actually benefits our community, too.
Let’s be clear about what’s going on here. We’ve got a private entity proposing significant development, most of which will take place on our public lands under the jurisdiction of the Bridger-Teton National Forest and the Town of Jackson. These jurisdictions have a responsibility to coordinate and ensure this proposal benefits our community and addresses basic questions before moving forward.
Basic questions like where are people going to park? How are people going to get there? Where are new employees going to live? Where will all the new sewage go? How can we protect wildlife and habitat? How do we ensure this private investment results in benefits for locals and keeps Snow King the heart of our community?
In addition, the Town has a responsibility to ensure Snow King’s plan aligns with our community’s land use rules and vision of a better future as articulated in the Comprehensive Plan. Specifically, since the master plan for the private lands at the base is more than 15 years old and completely out of date, contains none of the proposed projects, and does not anticipate an expansion of this sort, the Town should consider an update to the base master plan to ensure it aligns with the proposed development plan and our community’s current vision of a better future.
So, what should the Town and Forest Service do to ensure Snow King’s development benefits our community? They should make sure the plan and subsequent development increases public access, improves public transit and makes it safer for people to walk and bike, provides adequate sewer and water systems, protects wildlife habitat adjacent to the existing ski area, enhances our public gathering spaces at the base, keeps Snow King affordable to people who live here, and uses some of the dozens of acres of vacant land at the base to help address our housing crisis.
Thankfully, at a recent Town Council meeting, Snow King, the Forest Service, and the council all agreed on the need for collaboration and coordination moving forward. In addition, the Town took the important step of directing planning staff to analyze all external impacts from the proposed development plan to the town.
Here’s the thing, every one of us that loves Snow King also has a responsibility to support the Town and Forest Service in holding Snow King accountable for doing the right thing. So let’s all step up, make our voices heard about the future of our town hill, and support the collaboration necessary to make Snow King great.