Claims of foul play as JH Working lobbies Legislature over housing

JACKSON HOLE, Wyo. – A local nonprofit group representing business owners in Jackson had an unannounced meeting with a state legislative committee where they aired their complaints against Jackson’s high housing mitigation rates. Local politicians didn’t care for it but organizers say they did nothing wrong.

The popup parley, dubbed a “Lunch and Learn” by the organizing group Jackson Hole Working, was viewed by some as inappropriate and smacking of the kind of special interest group pandering that gives politicking a bad name.

Members of the Joint Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee say they took no action and drafted no bill after hearing out JH Working while meeting in Jackson on September 16.

Several bills introduced last session were viewed as targeting Jackson and Teton County’s affordable housing program by restricting its funding mechanisms, including one that would have stopped entirely any exaction fees for affordable/workforce housing. That bill (HB277), introduced by Rep. Shelly Duncan, R-Goshen, passed through committee 6-3 but failed to make it to the House floor in time for a vote. Rep. Duncan announced plans last week to again bring similar legislation to the 66th Legislature.

“No one did anything wrong, but everyone was a little short on being right, too,” said State Sen. Mike Gierau, D-Teton. “Yes, we get invited to all sorts of free parties during the session. It happens every single day. But to have a meeting, then break for lunch and a group comes in and the next day a representative says based on the testimony heard she’s going to prepare a bill. That’s a set up job. I think that legislator came with that idea of that legislation in hand.”

In a statement provided to Buckrail by JH Working, the organization says they talked about the same things they’ve discussed to town and county officials for four years now.

“[We] used this opportunity to talk about a host of issues we have been working on for the past several years including increasing professional job opportunities, housing, businesses and families leaving the valley, challenges to growing businesses, early childhood education and childcare. [We] have never taken a position on legislation. At no point during Monday’s lunch did Jackson Hole Working bring up a specifi­c bill or advocate for it one way or another,” said the advocacy group.

Rep. Andy Schwartz, D-Teton, stopped short of calling it a clandestine caucus but pointed out that it’s rare for the committee to meet in Jackson as it is so expensive to do so. And a topic like housing would certainly be at the top of the list for things to talk about in Teton County.

“But there was no mention of the issue on the agenda. Tyler [Lindholm] didn’t offer anything other than to say anything could be brought up during public comment,” Schwartz said. “Look, this Jackson Hole Working is made up of all developers and architects and builders. It’s not hard to see what they are angling for. They should run for office if they have something to offer. Kelly [Lockhart] has never run for anything. And I suspect if he did, the no-growthers would vote him down.”

JH Work-around or Cheyenne knows best?

As far as the nature of the meeting, all agree wine-and-dine events are par for the course with state legislators. It was more the sting of ‘discovering’ a housing topic discussed right in electedss backyards without then being aware or asked for more robust participation. The ‘sting’ worsened, no doubt, following a handful of housing unfriendly bills of last session and a perceived end-run around county land regulations by organizers of a local private school in Jackson.

JH Working also reminded that they do not wish to undermine local lawmaking efforts and are not opposed to affordable housing per se.

“Jackson Hole Working is not against housing. Our board members have contributed greatly to the valley’s housing supply and supported commonsense policies that would remove roadblocks to building multi-family housing units. We know ­first-hand the challenges facing small businesses in providing housing for our valued community members, neighbors and friends. And we are committed to being part of the solution,” the organization stated. “[Our] mission is to fi­nd balance in protecting our valley’s natural resources, wildlife and unique community character while ensuring this is a place where working people can raise their families and run a business.”

When it comes to local parties taking their beef to Cheyenne instead of settling here in-county, Sen. Gierau didn’t see any similarity between last year’s SF49 that cleared the way for the Classical Academy to build in South Park and JH Working’s pressing for a different housing tact in Jackson.

“To me, the issue last year with SF49 was different. A decision was made on a flawed rule-making ability concerning mainly a 10,000 square foot cap for a building. Pretty hard to justify that when you have a 30,000-square-foot clubhouse across the street (3 Creek) that will soon be expanding to 45,000. Watch that pass on gossamer wings,” Gierau said.

But still, Gierau said Teton County is better suited to fix its housing issue than the state.

“Housing is an issue that’s been going on for 30-plus years here. The exaction rates are a tool in the toolbox and, while they might be overapplied in this case, and personally I think they are, it’s a work in progress. We can pare it back if it doesn’t work,” Gierau said. “But I’m upset. I think they went too far with this. The community is trying to work through our housing problems and it doesn’t need legislation to blow it up.”

Rep. Schwartz agreed, saying he will do everything he can to kill the bill.

“Let locals try it out. This should be something we take care of here,” he said. “Look, Shelly [Duncan] is great, she’s a good legislator, but she’s a realtor and, in my opinion, this comes from ties she has with the real estate community here.”

Addressing the shortage of available and affordable housing in Teton County isn’t an easy task. The Jackson/Teton County Affordable Housing Department headed by April Norton has revamped and doubled-down on its efforts to put workforce housing on the ground. The high cost of building, coupled with exorbitated land values in Jackson Hole, has hampered the department at every turn. Turning off a key funding source in exaction rates could cripple housing efforts entirely.

Norton did not respond to multiple calls for comment.

JH Working also sees no easy solution but its members prefer more carrot and less stick.

“When it comes to housing solutions for Teton County, there is no silver bullet. Jackson Hole Working hopes to see a robust plan that includes incentives, the return of zoning tools responsible for much of the affordable housing in our community; Town and County leadership on large scale housing projects; and the inclusion of innovative private-sector solutions,” the group said. “Jackson Hole Working has been pleased to work with our county commissioners, town councilors and staff for the past four years. While we have not always seen eye-to-eye, we have appreciated our working relationship and look forward to continuing this dialogue and collaboration into the future.”

Mayor Pete Muldoon also entered the fray, responding to a letter submitted to the town by Jackson Hole Working.

Muldoon wrote to the group: “In my humble opinion, the wrong way to do it is to take the case to Cheyenne where it will be decided in an afternoon or so by folks with no real understanding of the nuances of the subject…If that can’t be done, I fear we will poison the debate we should be having here in our community, and the repercussions will echo throughout future elections and policy decisions.”

Jackson Hole Working is comprised of members of the business community including Ted Staryk, Kevin Kavanagh, Kelly Lockhart, John Carney, Anna Cole, John Stennis, Sadek Darwiche, Tyler Davis, Jenn Ford, and Joe Rice.

The Corporations committee will meet Nov. 18-19 in Cheyenne to discuss bills it intends to introduce into the 66th Legislative Session.

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