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County debate focuses on land
Two Democrats, two Republicans try to differentiate themselves at Tuesday forum.
By Kevin Huelsmann, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
Date: October 10, 2012
Candidates running for the Teton County Board of Commissioners sparred Tuesday evening over an issue that very well could determine the outcome of the upcoming election: how to handle new development.
Town planning commissioner and real estate broker Barbara Allen, who is running as a Republican, wants to make sure the new land-use plan for Teton County can permanently protect open space.
She thinks the existing plan doesn’t do that. It’s a big hole that could be exploited in coming years by new elected officials who might decide they want to see more development, she said.
Democrat Claire Fuller, who helps run her family’s ranch at the base of Teton Pass, thinks the county needs to rein in land use. Too often, county officials are willing to push the boundaries and allow uses to expand. It never works the other way, she said.
County commissioners need to create land-use rules that don’t bend, Fuller said, rules that don’t have a lot of gray areas and don’t require a lot of interpretation.
Sitting town Councilor Melissa Turley, also a Democrat, wants to seize the opportunity elected officials have to determine what kind of development residents want to see in the valley in coming decades. New development should be clustered in areas that already are developed, which is the linchpin of the county’s new land-use plan, she said.
And incumbent Commissioner Paul Perry, a Republican, said town and county planners need to vet new regulations. Commissioners should methodically review those proposed updates and weigh the long-term consequences.
Commissioners have to honor private property rights, he said, while simultaneously developing policies that will take into account Jackson’s singular nature, he said.
Candidates tried to clearly stake out their positions during a forum hosted by the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance.
Perry had a death in his family and had to attend a funeral. He submitted answers to questions posed by alliance staff in advance.
The main focus Tuesday was the county’s new comprehensive land-use plan. The document, approved this summer, aims to shift new development away from wildlife habitat and large, scenic open spaces to already developed areas.
Turley said her first priority would be to revise the county’s planned residential development tool, which allows some landowners to develop denser projects if they set aside a prescribed amount of open space.
“I think we can look at some of the multipliers,” she said, referring to the different levels of development allowed under the tool. “The nine per 35 multiplier hasn’t been used very often in county development. This might be an opportunity for reduction.”
Turley was referring to one of the development options allowed under the tool that allows nine dwelling units per 35 acres.
Fuller said county officials have to focus on preserving open space. Putting the policies of the new land-use plan in place will require elected officials to put money behind new studies and make sure planners have all the resources they need to focus on creating new regulations.
Allen, the only official to vote against the comprehensive plan, said the document relies on a concept that it can’t define: Nowhere in the plan are there any provisions to permanently protect open space.
“Saying that you want to build where there are buildings without achieving permanent open space is just an incremental step in the growth of numbers in the town and county and concentric sprawl,” she said in a written answer provided to the alliance.
She said the planning document takes away options from landowners who have conserved thousands of acres. It also leaves the door open for zoning changes by future elected officials.
Perry said planning staff should bring to commissioners’ attention policies and regulations in the new plan that conflict with existing rules.
“With so little private land in the county, we have to design policies that will benefit our county while respecting private property rights and working within budgeted monies we have,” he said in a written answer provided to the alliance.
Though the main thread running through candidates’ answers was the comprehensive plan, other topics raised interesting questions for the four, who are competing for two spots on the commission.
One question from the audience dove headfirst into an ongoing issue about how to regulate special events, such as weddings and receptions, on rural properties. Commissioners are reviewing regulations that would place new restrictions on those kinds of uses.
Fuller said she doesn’t think it’s appropriate to allow commercial uses in rural parts of the county. Doing so could create irreparable damage to rural neighborhoods and deter property owners from placing conservation easements on their property.
“The responsibility of the county is respecting the choices of residents, not fundamentally changing the characteristic of a neighborhood by allowing a new use,” Fuller said.
Allen said she supports a more flexible approach that sets parameters but allows elected officials to consider specific issues on different properties, an answer that aligns more closely with the route sitting commissioners are taking.
“One [land-use regulation] would fail to address what may be very specific issues on specific properties,” she said.
Turley advocated a similar approach. County commissioners have to weigh the economic interests of rural landowners looking to make money from their property with the concerns of neighbors and protecting open space, she said.
Two upcoming ballot issues also provided material candidates used to set themselves apart.
Fuller answered a question about paying to clean up the county’s landfill by saying county officials should think about pursuing a real estate transfer tax. She has been the only candidate to suggest raising any kind of new revenue.
The question posed to candidates was how they would pay for the state-mandated landfill cleanup if the ballot question to use sales tax dollars for the project fails.
“Instead of raising traditional taxes, I would look for innovative sources of revenue that are progressive,” Fuller said, adding that she thinks the specific purpose excise tax is the ideal way to pay for the project. That indicates the different perspective she would bring to county government, she said.
Allen and Turley said the basic question is whether residents want to pay for the project through sales taxes or property taxes. They both support paying for the project through sales tax proceeds.
Commissioners don’t have a choice, they said. They have to comply with the state’s order to close the old trash dump.
If it isn’t paid for by sales tax dollars, residents will have to step up to pay for the cleanup some other way, likely with property taxes, Allen said.
Turley said the forced closure should prompt more planning for future services.
“The project is critical,” she said, “but not just because it’s mandated, but because it gives us a chance to talk about expanding composting capabilities.”
Candidates also weighed in on the town’s potential purchase of land on North Cache Street from the U.S. Forest Service.
Voters will decide next month whether to set aside nearly $14 million in sales tax proceeds to finance the purchase.
Allen said she would support the deal only if it guaranteed that the Forest Service wouldn’t relocate its headquarters, a decision its leaders haven’t made yet.
“Without that link, I think we’re supporting a $13 million cost for an off-street parcel where the town already controls the zoning,” she said.
Fuller, quoting the alliance, said public lands should stay in public hands. She said she supports town officials’ plans to step in and take control of the parcel, which sits along the gateway to downtown Jackson.
“The alternative is really quite frightening,” she said.
Turley said town officials hope the deal will keep the Forest Service in Jackson. It also affords them the chance to pursue projects related to transportation and housing, improve the town’s road system and provide an alternate route to St. John’s Medical Center.
“It presents an opportunity to have in our community ownership of a piece of property that we’re not going to see again,” she said.