Church school dealt a blow
After defeat, advocates for Christian facility in Wilson ponder whether to pursue issue with county.
By Kevin Huelsmann, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
October 24, 2012
Plans for a Christian school on Nethercott Lane were set back Monday night when Teton County planning commissioners narrowly recommended against new rules that would have allowed it.
Planning commissioners voted 3-2 during a nearly four-hour meeting against a change in land-use regulations that would have allowed the school in a residential neighborhood. Planning Commissioners Patricia Russell, Mark Newcomb and Peter Stewart voted against the proposal. Mike Hammer and Paul Duncker voted for.
The issue next goes to county commissioners. The proposed change has drawn deep and sustained opposition from neighbors.
Proponents of the school are reevaluating whether they’ll pursue the project further.
“We’ve got a lot to figure out,” Polly Friess said Tuesday.
Friess represents Core Ventures, a limited liability company whose members proposed new regulations that would allow small schools in some rural, single-family neighborhoods. Core Ventures operates a day care on Nethercott Lane that its members want to convert into a small Christian school.
The institution already teaches students as old as 8 under existing day care rules. Five children attend.
The regulations that came before planning commissioners would open the door for Core Ventures to submit an application for the school.
“I can’t promise you that we’ll move forward, and I can’t promise you we won’t,” Friess said. “We have a lot to talk about.”
The proposed regulations are scheduled to go before county commissioners in December. County planners, who recommended that the regulations be approved, said they’re waiting to hear from Friess.
“Three of the planning commissioners didn’t feel comfortable that there was a definition of what a small institutional use is, so they voted against the amendment,” said Senior Planner Alex Norton, who reviewed the proposal. “I don’t think that would change staff’s opinion about the amendment.”
As proposed, the regulations would allow institutional uses — schools, churches or community centers, for example — in some neighborhoods.
The proposed rules would divide those uses into two categories. One category would encompass smaller uses that are more focused on serving a particular neighborhood. The other category would include more intense uses that serve a broader segment of the county.
Framework for projects
The less intense uses would be allowed to operate in neighborhoods, while the larger uses would be limited to denser areas or ones with commercial activity.
For the small, neighborhood-focused uses, operations would have to be limited by many of the same regulations that apply to a home being built on the same site. Planners added a restriction that would require these kinds of facilities to limit the number of daily vehicle trips to 50.
The regulations would create a framework for these types of projects through which county officials would review specific proposals.
That means a property owner still would have to go before county planning commissioners and the full board of county commissioners to get a particular project approved.
Existing land-use rules lump all of those institutional uses into one category.
The proposal first came before planning commissioners earlier this year. At that time, Core Ventures was asking county officials to allow institutional uses in some single-family neighborhoods. It pulled the proposal in order to allow elected officials to finish their review of the new comprehensive plan.
The revised proposal was supposed to be more refined and clearly delineate between different types of institutional uses.
On Monday, planning commissioners questioned how many properties the regulations would affect. A planning consultant working on the rules estimated the regulations would apply to roughly 40 properties.
Planning commissioners also wondered how the change would fit with the latest version of the Jackson/Teton County Comprehensive Plan. The plan was adopted in May by town and county officials but has yet to be turned into any specific regulations.
“Predictability is a pillar of the new plan,” Planning Commissioner Newcomb said Monday. “Somehow, this amendment is not quite standing up to the level of predictability that is expected.”
Others said it was unfair to allow these kinds of facilities in neighborhoods that have historically been limited to single-family homes.
Residents’ comments during the meeting helped sway some commissioners’ opinion about the effect of the regulations.
“Public comment really defined how big of a change this is,” Stewart said.
On the other side of the argument, Planning Commissioner Hammer said the proposal was part of the transition between existing regulations and new ones that will be developed from the newest land-use plan for the county. It’s something that has been seen after each one of the county’s land-use plans were adopted, he said.
“During each of those periods, development proceeded with their imprecise and best vision of what the future would be,” he said.
Residents, however, said the regulations had the potential to disrupt the character of their neighborhood. Several residents who live along Nethercott Lane said they decided to buy a home in the neighborhood because of its quiet, rural nature. Approving the new regulations would destroy that, they said.
Timing, traffic are issues
A school, even if it is limited to 50 children, would draw more traffic to the street, which would only exacerbate existing problems in the area, including congestion and wildlife-vehicle collisions.
Others questioned the timing of the regulations, which they said pre-empt the new rules that are supposed to be developed to put the policies of the new comprehensive plan into practice.
Supporters of the regulations said planners have to start addressing small pieces of the comprehensive plan so they aren’t forced to rewrite all of the county’s regulations at once.
“That would be an overwhelming project, in terms of the volume of information as well as the complexity,” said Bill Collins, who helped craft the school proposal and shepherd it through the county’s approval process.
Collins, who once was the county’s planning director, said the regulations would improve the broad definition of institutional uses in the county’s existing rules.
The proposal already fits with many of the major policies included in the new comprehensive plan, he said. It provides important cultural and educational services in a location that already is developed and has infrastructure, he said.
The discussion on Monday raised serious questions about how elected officials will put new regulations in place under the comprehensive plan, Friess said. Even Norton said the interim period between existing regulations and new ones is difficult.
“It is consistent with the comprehensive plan,” Norton said of the school proposal. “But they’re hamstrung because they’re using old zoning districts. The timing was unlucky. People are going to have to get used to having conversations and working through the transition.”