Housing hang-ups consume another joint meeting of Town & County

JACKSON, Wyo. – During another bonus joint meeting of town and county electeds (they’ll meet again on 9/16, 10/7, and 11/4), the ten electeds still could not agree on a builder or a project for 440 W Kelly, nor could they take a single step forward in the pursuit of building more affordable housing.

When dissuaded a month ago by nervous neighbors on West Kelly Avenue fretting the shadow box that would be cast by too big of a housing project there, county commissioners ixnayed a 16-unit design that the town had reluctantly approved because they had their hearts set on 24 units.

Frustrated by the inability to come to an agreement (both town and county must vote to approve), both sides schemed all sorts of ways out of the dilemma in the weeks leading up to this month’s special JIM.

Town could buy out the county’s interest and do whatever the heck it wanted. County could buy out the town’s interest and vice versa. Government could scrap all three respondent’s proposals to an earlier RFP and give the project to Habitat for Humanity. Town and county could turn around and sell the property they just bought in January—maybe even slap a deed restriction on it first.

When asked by a confused councilman Jonathan Schechter what success would look like for her, housing Director April Norton said,

“Success for today is you all voting in favor of some sort of option for moving forward with a housing development here.”

Based on that definition the special joint meeting convened Monday to determine the fate of 440 W. Kelly was unsuccessful.

Again….

Since closing on the double-parcel, governing bodies of the town and county have been unable to agree on what to do with it exactly. The divide comes over balancing density and decorum.

Pushing for density means getting the biggest bang for the taxpayer dollar and housing the most people possible in light of Jackson’s affordable housing crunch. But decorum would dictate that any project done on W Kelly should be done delicately so as not to peeve the neighborhood and further jeopardize future workforce housing efforts.

A happy medium may not exist. Even a fair-to-middlin’ medium has yet to be found.

A month ago, it was the county that sunk the town’s vote to build a 16-unit apartment building on W Kelly. This time around it was town council’s turn to come unglued and scuttle any housing development after a failed vote on a 12-unit project at 440 W Kelly followed a thumbs up from their county counterparts.

How they voted

It was the county that extended the olive branch, proposing a more modest two-story, 12-unit configuration of 7,200SF of livable space that would be fully parked. Three hands went up, two didn’t, and the BCC squeaked one by after an hour’s worth of haranguing and harrumphing.

“I’ve been putting my money where my mouth is,” commissioner Mark Barron reminded everyone. As a business owner, Barron has consistently provided housing for his employees within his means. He also called the 12-unit proposal respectful of both the town’s zoning there and of the neighbors and what they wanted to see or not see on the ground.

Chair Natalia Macker wanted more—she had voted in favor of 16 units—but, to her, a dozen units was at least something. “Right now there are 81 children in our school district that are homeless,” she said. “I will support this motion even if it goes nowhere only because I want to vote ‘yes’ for housing.”

Greg Epstein, who asked for a reconsideration of the BCC’s ‘no’ vote on 16 units last month, said the 12-unit compromise “may not be what everybody loves and wants but it’s better than nothing for everybody.”

“If there is no buy-in from this neighborhood. What do you think is going to happen in the next neighborhood? And when we go out and ask the public for SPET dollars? It’s not going to be an easy sell,” Epstein said. “So, let’s step in lightly. Let’s treat the neighborhood with respect, balance it out and get a little bit of housing and move forward. If we just force our way in it’s not going to help the long-term cause.”

But commissioner Newcomb bristled at the additional public subsidy that will likely be required to make a smaller development pencil.

“If we are expecting community support—on the SPET ballot for instance—the community is more apt to support dollars if they know that the dollars are being used in the most effective manner for housing,” Newcomb postulated.

Commissioner Luther Propst said he would rather reopen an RFP for something more like 6-10 units. “We are making decisions that will mean permanent changes for this neighborhood and we should not be rushed into that,” he said.

The Board of County Commissioners vote went 3-2 in favor of a 12-unit housing project at 440 W Kelly, with Newcomb and Propst opposed.

With the ball in the town’s court, Mayor Pete Muldoon ran with it. He began by chiding his county cohorts for meddling in town zoning, saying that is the town’s purview and something already decided at W Kelly where a max of 24 units could be built if the town could only go it alone.

Muldoon also addressed the neighbors who spoke out in defense of their neighborhood and against a largescale housing project. He reminded them that 16 units would barely put a dent in the 2,800 needed and they had to bite the bullet on this one. He claimed there was community support for housing at 440 W Kelly as evidenced by an official count of 39 positive out of 70 comments registered by Norton and her department.

“We can just say that this is hard. We can quit. That’s one way to do it. We can say we are doing this because the neighbors don’t like it. That’s fair,” Muldoon said. “But when we move over to the next place in town the message will be the same. So, what we are talking about here today is not whether we are going to build 8, 10, 12 or 16 units on this property, it’s whether we are going to abandon our goal of creating workforce housing in this community. That’s what we are talking about. Because it is not going to get any easier. I’m not in support of this motion.”

Fellow councilman Jim Stanford favored the ‘longest journey begins with the first step’ approach. “You never get anywhere unless you take a step. It’s not perfect and there may be people who don’t like the bulk and scale of it, but it seems to me to be a reasonable compromise,” he said.

After watching the county vote a 12-unit through and seeing Stanford leaning that way, Muldoon appeared to change his mind but not before more minority whipping.

Muldoon mentioned his current guilty screen binge Chernobyl—a TV miniseries on the nuclear meltdown that almost destroyed Russia and could have contaminated the rest of the world. He equated the W Kelly neighborhood with the guy who had to go into the bowels of the leaking reactor and shut it off, facing a most painful and certain death for the good of his countrymen and all of mankind.

“I don’t blame you for not wanting to see change in your neighborhood. Change is hard. But it must be done,” Muldoon stated.

The mayor added that he would support a 12-unit project, albeit reluctantly.

But his comrades hung him out to dry.

“If we do this we are leaving a significant number of people unhoused,” Arne Jorgensen said. “I would have a hard time supporting the current proposal. I’d want to see an increase in bedrooms.”

Hailey Morton Levinson agreed, saying 12-units was leaving too much on the table.

“We are tying ourselves up in knots for many good reasons…We are trying to do something that may be almost impossible to do…We are setting ourselves and everyone else up for failure,” Schechter lamented. “Neighbors can’t figure out what the transition looks like and they are afraid of it. We can’t figure it out what the transition looks like and that’s really creating a lot of problems.”

Schechter concluded ultimately he did not know what 7,200 square feet looked like, and the bulk-and-scale was the most important aspect of a housing development on W Kelly.

When the council vote failed 2-3, with only Muldoon and Stanford in support, the room was thrown into immediate confusion. Propst asked again for the roll call on the vote. Macker asked for order.

“Jonathan surprised us,” Morton Levinson said aloud during the confusion. “Or at least me.”

“Jesus,” Epstein exclaimed before Macker called for a 5-minute recess, presumably to regain order.

But the 10 returned to business with no mention of the failed vote and plunged headlong into further business regarding how they were going to pay for START service.

Again providing no vision of reprieve for the 81 homeless children in our school district, or the neighbors of the proposed 440 West Kelly project.

Housing project at 440 W. Kelly shot down

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