Housing splits hopefuls
Christensen, Schwartz, Fuller support program; Triano backs rent control.
By Cara Froedge, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
October 8, 2008
Affordable housing topped the debate among four candidates for county commissioner during a Saturday forum, with one opposing the government program and the others calling for ramping it up.
Republican Dennis Triano campaigned against the valley’s affordable housing program, calling for rent-controlled apartments instead. His opponents, Republican Leland Christensen and Democrats Claire Fuller and Andy Schwartz disagreed, saying the county needs affordable housing to maintain a diverse community.
“I don’t believe affordable housing has ever worked,” Triano said. “I don’t believe it will ever work.”
Voters will decide Nov. 4 which two of the candidates will assume four-year terms on the Teton County Board of Commissioners.
Triano, 62, and Fuller, 24, are political newcomers who have never held public office. Christensen, 49, is finishing his first term on the board, and Schwartz, 57, is completing his second. Schwartz currently serves as chairman.
The forum was one of six debates Saturday at Teton County Library. Sponsors of the event included the League of Women Voters, Teton County Library, Jackson Hole News&Guide and Planet Jackson Hole.
When asked about affordable housing, Triano said the issue has been paramount since 1988 when he moved here. At that time, a person could buy a home for $90,000. That same home is now $900,000.
The county can never do enough to address home prices and needs a better system of affordable rentals, he said. Additionally, large employers such as Four Seasons Resort Jackson Hole need to house all their workers.
Triano said the affordable housing system, which oversees a range of offerings, has been abused, with wealthy parents buying homes in their children’s names that are then sold for profit. Triano said a recent example of that abuse was the sale of an attainable house for more than $500,000, netting the owner $100,000.
That profit, he said, was taxpayer subsidized.
Triano said affordable homes only will continue to drive up land values because if further decreases the supply of property.
“All you’re doing is raising prices of everybody else,” he said.
Others argued against Triano.
“I could not disagree more,” said Schwartz, who’s lived in the valley for 30 years. “We have passed the point in this county where the free market ... can address our issues.”
Mapping out development
Schwartz said affordable housing is the only way to maintain a diverse community, but those homes must be built near infrastructure and services.
While commercial development must be limited, the county has restricted capacity for much more commercial growth, he said. To do this, the county is looking at the legality of changing how much housing employers are required to build.
Currently, regulations only allow the county to require developers to house seasonal employees and not full-time workers.
Fuller, who was born in Teton County, said she believes affordable housing is essential, particularly when it comes to the service sector. The increase in the number of service-industry workers needed for businesses such as the large hotels in the valley is not sustainable, she said. Developers creating projects that require service workers must house 100 percent of full-time employees and 70 percent to 80 percent of seasonal workers, she said.
“I don’t think it’s an unreasonable request,” Fuller said.
She would like to see the resort districts, mainly Teton Village, house workers, as there already is density at those locations.
The north end of South Park surrounding High School Road could be a place for such housing, she said.
The valley needs to add to its stock of affordable homes, particularly as baby boomers in the valley work force retire and sell their homes at prices unaffordable to the workers who will replace them, she said.
“That home will not be within reach for any worker coming in to take that job,” Fuller said.
Christensen, an Alta native, agreed with Fuller and said the area near High School Road is a good location for affordable housing. He called for raising the mitigation rates on commercial developments and ramping up the affordable rental program.
When asked about altering the planned-unit-development-for-affordable-housing zoning district, everyone but Triano agreed it should be modified. Triano doesn’t believe there should be such a zoning district.
Teton Meadows developers used the zoning tool to propose a 500-unit development for South Park that some called too big.
Schwartz said he thinks the district should require 80 percent to 90 percent of homes to be affordable so the Jackson Hole Community Housing Trust is able to use the tool. He also said the county needs to identify proper locations and size for such neighborhoods.
Christensen said he would like the regulation changed so that it’s not viewed as a “development opportunity.”
Fuller said the regulation, which she called a “grab bag,” is too subjective and flexible.
“We need more objectivity and predictability in it,” she said.
Regarding other development issues, candidates discussed a growth cap, the natural resources overlay and a development moratorium.
Most agreed that a growth cap is something to be examined as the county revises its comprehensive plan.
Christensen said every comprehensive plan rewrite done in Jackson Hole has down-zoned much of the valley, and this one could let the community establish a growth cap.
Fuller and Triano said such a cap should not be achieved through down-zoning property, which would take away a property owner’s rights.
“That is something we have to take very seriously when we contemplate it,” Triano said. “I don’t want to take rights away from the people of Teton County.”
Yet Schwartz said the county has the right to down-zone property, but it has no control over already platted lots. He also said the plan revision should look at the county’s growth rate, determine what is an acceptable rate going forward and detail how that can be achieved.
Protecting natural resources
The comprehensive plan update will improve the validity of the natural resources overlay, Schwartz said. The overlay identifies areas important to plants and animals.
Through an ongoing process to study the environmental district, the county will identify areas of critical winter habitat and migration corridors. Then, those areas, as well buffer zones around those areas, will be mapped. Future land regulations would restrict development on land in or near the overlay, he said.
Schwartz said the overlay can never be a hard line drawn on a map.
“Animals don’t recognize hard lines written on a piece of paper,” he said
Fuller agreed that the county needs new data to determine where the overlay is located.
Then, she said, “Put a hard line on a map and stick to it.”
Christensen said the overlay, as it stands now, is too flexible, and he looks forward to redefining it in the future.
Triano said protected resources such as wildlife are what brought most people to Jackson.
“We have to take care of wildlife,” he said. “That’s why we’re are all here.”
Every candidate also agreed that Teton County does not need any more resort zoning.
Schwartz said there’s not going to be any more districts, so there may be no point to using time and effort to erase the zoning from land-development regulations.
Others disagreed, including Christensen, who pointed to the recent approval of Grand Targhee Resort as evidence that new resorts can come on-line.
Fuller said the county should eliminate the zoning as soon as possible.
“The resort zone is always three votes away,” she said. “That is troublesome to me.”
Switching courses to the failed $53 million justice center, Triano said the price tag caused sticker shock among residents.
Yet Christensen and Schwartz said they thought it was important that residents vote on the issue. They both voted to put the project on the ballot.
When it comes to other public institutions such as the hospital, candidates also said the community should be involved. The county has final say over hospital districts leasing their facilities to private nonprofits.
Triano said he’s totally against privatizing the hospital.
Schwartz and Christensen said they would have voted against the proposal that they saw for privatizing St. John’s Medical Center. They said the hospital needs to be transparent and open to the public to receive tax dollars.
Triano said St. John’s is a great hospital. Taking it from the public and turning it into a business for someone’s profit would not benefit the community.
Fuller said the hospital should remain a public entity.
“Health, safety and education are public, individual human rights in the public domain,” she said. “So I hope the hospital remains a public entity.”