Planning for northern South Park is moving toward the final phase as planners look to maximize the amount of housing proposed, likely over 1,000 homes, while providing options for whoever develops the land to reduce the cost and risk of building.
Teton County planners are distilling public comments on three options, unveiled in August, into a final proposal for town and county review. The Gill family has generally supported that tack, though a majority of the steering committee tasked with advising the town and county on the process have asked for a different approach. They advocated planning for a smaller footprint, while putting some resources elsewhere, like developing in town.
“We are moving forward with the process as envisioned,” Teton County Planning and Building Director Chris Neubecker told the News&Guide in an email Monday.
De-risking the project
But that doesn’t mean the department’s just picking and slightly altering one of the three alternatives unveiled in August, as was originally proposed. Those early, conceptual proposals evaluated developing between 700 and 2,400 new homes in the area just south of High School Road and put the public cost of subsidizing the construction of income-restricted affordable homes at anywhere from $115 million to $500 million.
Those models were heavily scrutinized.
The Gills questioned the data underpinning the financial analysis, onlookers worried that the financial return for the landowners wasn’t sufficient, and others fretted about the amount of relatively expensive workforce housing proposed versus income-restricted units.
Now, Neubecker said planners are looking at something that will “likely look different than simple refinement of one alternative.”
Instead, his department and the consulting team led by Opticos Design Inc. are taking community and steering committee feedback into account to propose something that’s more feasible but still meets the goal of developing affordable workforce housing.
“Maybe the three alternatives we’ve seen so far didn’t quite work,” Neubecker told the steering committee in late October. “But maybe there’s a fourth alternative or a fifth one that does, and I think that’s the the challenge now — to tweak these plans and dial up the density, or do what it takes to find out if there is another alternative that does work.”
It’s unclear what density, exactly, the final proposal will recommend.
Neubecker said Monday that public comment led him to believe the public wanted to see something between alternative B and C: options that would see between 1,300 and 2,400 units proposed in the area, respectively.
In the first option, over 400 of those homes would be income-restricted affordable units.
In the second, that number would be closer to 1,000.
Consultants estimated that a $205 million public subsidy would have been required to develop the affordable units under alternative B. And they felt that a $500 million subsidy would have been required to build them in the second.
“While potentially creating the most affordable housing, Alternative C is more expensive to construct and contains the most risk to a developer,” Neubecker wrote. “Staff is working with the consultants to identify opportunities to reduce this risk and overall costs.”
Those options include reducing infrastructure costs and phasing the development, he said, partly by trying to determine how much development can be accommodated without new investments in the community’s public infrastructure.
Continue? Or no?
The cost of developing housing in northern South Park, scale of public subsidy and uncertainty over the landowners’ wishes played a role in leading Bill Collins, a former Teton County planning director and current steering committee member, to propose the alternative path for the planning process: Pursuing a smaller, denser development in northern South Park, focusing on developing housing in town and bolstering cross-community transportation to reflect the reality of people commuting to Jackson.
Three other steering committee members signed onto his letter outlining that proposal, which the committee debated at its October meeting.
“I’m curious as to what an alternative will look like that would have substantially less acreage, fewer overall units with a much higher density per acre that would raise the per acre value that a developer would be willing to pay,” Collins said then.
Planners said both the Gills and Lockharts had expressed interest in continuing the process as originally proposed. Kelly Lockhart did not attend the meeting.
But Nikki Gill did. She said she’d met with county planners, was “encouraged” by the meeting and wanted to see the process continue. But she was not interested in limiting acreage or size of the proposed development.
“This is at a crisis level,” Gill said of the valley’s housing situation. “We’re here. We have a set acreage. I think reducing that at this phase will do more damage than good.”
She thought the process should explore modifications to the rezone proposal her family submitted in 2020 and “maybe amending a certain zone.” She didn’t say which, but her family had earlier proposed rezoning some of their property to the county’s AR-TC zone.
“I do believe that there’s a way that we can do this successfully without the massive public subsidy,” Gill said. “So that doesn’t scare me. And I think there’s ways around that. We can get creative.”
Laura Bonich, a planning consultant who’s also on the steering committee, didn’t buy Collins’ approach. She was the only steering committee member besides Gill and Lockhart to not sign onto his letter.
Like Gill, Bonich advocated continuing the process as originally planned, citing what she viewed as the community’s support for developing open ranchlands in exchange for workforce housing. But she didn’t think it would be easy.
“I think we have to figure out a way to make it work, and it’s going to take some some bigger moves at a policy level,” Bonich said.
She suggested sticking to developing 1,200 to 1,500 units and modeling scenarios with more free-market development than what’s been proposed so far.
Her idea was to start with giving 25% of the units to the free market and then figuring out how many of those types of units were required to make the development pencil.
“Then the electeds could make a determination if they thought we were getting enough workforce and affordable restrictions in return for the up zone,” Bonich wrote in an email Tuesday.
She also suggested a new type of density transfer that could fund the affordable housing development.
“We have community support for greenfield development,” Bonich said in October. “It would be sad to reduce the acreage or not continue, when we’ve seen a pretty high level of support for that.”
Neubecker said he anticipated presenting a draft plan to the public in January 2022.
Once the comment period closes on that draft, the plan will proceed through the planning commissions and elected town and county boards. That will put project completion well into 2022.
The planning effort was supposed to be done in August.
But Neubecker and some steering committee members were open in October to taking more time to get things right.
“I want to see something get built. I’d love to see it done quickly. But I also want to see it done right,” Neubecker said then. “Sometimes, not always, but sometimes taking a little bit longer to make sure it’s done right is worthwhile.”