Jackson residents weigh in on plan for preserving open space, adding worker housing

Nov 10, 2011

Listen to the story

In Teton County, planning often gets heated. A developer proposes a new subdivision or commercial space, and citizens come out to oppose it. Residents can be pretty clear about what kind of development they don't want to see. But the question Teton County and Town of Jackson officials are putting to the community in a series of workshops as part of a new comprehensive plan is: What kind of development do they want? Rebecca Huntington has more.

Going to a county planning meeting is about the last way Bill and Kathy Robertson want to spend their day.

ROBERTSON: “It ties us up in knots every time we go, but we did go again today.”

And Kathy says she and her husband, Bill, will go to the next one too.

ROBERTSON: “I have to pull teeth to get him there, but he goes.”

They go because there's a chance that this latest round of comprehensive planning for future growth could affect what happens on their one-hundred-and-five-acre hay pasture south of Jackson.

Bill Robertson's family homesteaded in Teton County, eventually settling into an area that locals call Hog Island. It got its name because the Snake River once cut it off from Jackson. That was before highway bridges were built when ranching families pastured hogs and cattle. Today, it's anything but an island with the valley's only north-south highway running right past their property.

ROBERTSON: “We're looking then across toward Munger Mountain to the West, and you can see the lay of the land and the development.”

From the east side of the river, Kathy points out the Robertson family's land -- one of the few remaining large, open meadows where horses and mules still graze. A field of golden grass, the pasture runs from the highway up to the national forest. But it also borders industrial sites, including the Wyoming highway department, private construction and the county's weed and pest operation.

ROBERTSON: “And then above that is housing, and it goes on all the way up to the mountain. And then Evan's construction to the right, that's what that smoke is coming from. And this is all Evan's trailer court along the river here and this is another little complex here right by the river.”

It's a hodgepodge of industrial activity, housing and open space. At the heart of the county's new comprehensive plan are two goals: preserve open space and provide housing for workers. If the Robertsons have their say they'd like to see their open space become housing for workers because as Bill points out this is already a working-class neighborhood.

BILL ROBERTSON: “Landscaper up there, there's a heating contractor up there, there's a fence builder...”

As part of the new comprehensive plan, Bill wants the county to change zoning here to allow his land to be divided into small lots -- possibly 2 acres and create a cluster of live-to-work sites where people have enough space for a home and a shop to support their small business. This will give Bill more flexibility to sell that land and divide what is essentially his family's inheritance among six siblings. 

BILL ROBERTSON: “My sisters are all close to 80 and... Already one of my sisters is dead so they'd like to settle it in their lifetime.”

But current zoning only allows the Robertsons one lot per 35 acres and some think even that's too much... Preserving open space and keeping things the way they are is a prevalent view in the county.

For instance, across town at this planning meeting at the Senior Center, residents here don't want to see change. What defines their East Jackson neighborhood, they say is a rural feel with modest homes on larger lots and seeing wildlife. Town Planning Director Tyler Sinclair says their passionate about this topic.

SINCLAIR: “Having the wildlife in their neighborhood is important to them and why they live there and that that's something us planners can't quantify all of the time.”

Now it's up to county elected officials like Teton County Commissioner Chairman Ben Ellis to figure out how to balance all these community desires.

ELLIS: “There was a lot of concern and anxiety going into the process that there were going to be major land-use changes that undermined private property rights, but that's not the direction the community has gone.”

Instead, Ellis says the community is devising incentives to discourage development in prime wildlife areas while encouraging development in more suitable areas. He says many obstacles remain.

As for the Robertsons, they'll wait and see.

KATHY ROBERTSON: “There's a possibility they're going to look at the density of this area and maybe making some adjustments. But you know with the county nothing is decided.”

Proposed land-use maps and ideas gleaned from these neighborhood meetings will be presented to the community in December.