JH Classical Academy denied text amendment to increase building size for school gym

JACKSON HOLE, WYO – Owl Happenings LLC was yesterday denied its request to amend the text in land development regulations that would have allowed for a larger than maximum allowed building size of 10,000sf.

The applicant is attempting to move the campus of the Jackson Hole Classical Academy to parcels zoned rural and in doing so was seeking text amendments to allow for a larger building and adjusted operating times. The text amendment revision the allowed times of operation text amendment was granted but JHCA’s bid for what it said would be a functional gymnasium was denied by county commissioners on a 4-1 (Paul Vogelheim in sole support) vote at a special meeting Thursday.

After a planning commission suggestion that 15,000sf rather than the original ask of 30,000 would be more palatable, the applicant amended its application for a smaller gym/assembly hall. It still didn’t fly with the BCC.

County planning staff recommended denial of the request stating it was inconsistent with the Comp Plan, LDRs, and community-defined characteristics of the rural areas.

“The single building limit has been 10,000 sf since 1994,” staff commented. “The single building limit requires that sites allowed more than 10,000 square feet must break up the mass into multiple buildings. The single building maximum was established to retain the rural, ranch compound character when developing in rural areas. The allowance of institutional uses in R?1 and R?2 zones was out of a finding that they represent uses that are a community necessity and difficult to locate.”

Planning director Susan Johnson reminded commissioners she was there when they discussed R-1 and R-2 zoning. “I remember the discussions to limit building structures to 10,000 square feet. It was not an oversight,” she said, referring to the applicant’s allegations that the rule was made concerning residential homes and no one had envisioned a school and its needs.

The applicant’s attorney, Leah Corrigan, said recent changes to land development regulations made it nearly impossible to put a school anywhere in the county. Schools were recently disallowed in suburban zones and the variance tool, which could have allowed the school’s requests to be considered as applying to it only and not have wide-ranging implications for all development in rural zones, was done away with in 2015.

“Believe me when I say the Jackson Hole Classical Academy does not want to be up here asking for a text amendment to the maximum building size in the rural zone. That is a path the Classical Academy was forced into by very recent changes to the land development regulations,” Corrigan said. “Schools were just zoned out of suburban zones. The variance issue is also fairly recent. This is the only path and that’s why we’re here.”

Public comment from both sides was contentious as it has been through the process. When it strayed to ‘ugly,’ as commissioner Natalia Macker called it, chair Mark Newcomb steered commenters back on course with sharp rebuke. Several commenters mentioned the school’s financial backers—the Friess family—and their attempts to take the matter to the state level. Newcomb wouldn’t have it, calling that a separate matter.

Many commenters also prefaced their opposition by stating they were not against a school, some even saying they liked what the Classical Academy was all about.

Corrigan took exception with that notion when it was the applicant’s turn to speak.

“Some people have said this isn’t about schools,” Corrigan began. “But it is about schools because if you don’t allow for this 5,000 sf increase to accommodate a gym or a religious assembly or a performance hall, you are in effect saying only a small school without those well-known functional features can be built in the rural zone. So, it’s not about the value of education in theory but when you apply it practically as a policy matter, that’s exactly what it is about. It’s about the ability to build a functional school in a place where schools are zoned. That’s why we’re here.”

How they voted

Board of County Commissioners makes decision yesterday during a special meeting. (Teton County)

Greg Epstein wanted more clarification on the difference between 10,000sf building and a 15,000sf building as it pertained to intensity of use.

“In my mind, 10,000 square feet is for students. Fifteen thousand square foot, to me, sounds like it’s for basketball leagues, indoor soccer leagues. The intensity seems like it bumps up quite a bit between those two numbers. Is this application about the students, or about the students’ parents being able to watch them play and practice? I have to ask that question.”

Macker said the text amendment was too broad, allowing increased building size above 10,000sf. She would rather the BCC be able to make decisions based on the type of use envisioned for a larger building—whether 30,000, 15,000, or 12,000 square feet. She added that she did not feel comfortable making a decision on the size of a gym, for instance, without knowing more about most experts agreed the size of a functional school gym should be.

“Where this ultimately falls down for me is this text amendment I’m not able to support whether it’s at thirty thousand or fifteen, but I would at some future point in time be willing to look at removal of the variance tool because that has come up at other times as well.”

Smokey Rhea said she hears people promising the application would not be precedent setting and that future development in rural zones would be decided on a case-by-case basis.  She disagreed, saying, “There is no case-by-case if we do this. If we are not allowing variances to come in.”

Rhea added, “I know that we have crowded schools and we don’t have enough recreational fields and gyms that support them nor the public money to build them. I also know this particular project is a very worthy project. But I’m struggling with the unknowns. And we do have a lot of unknowns.

“I just don’t think this is the right process. The variance discussion might be one we should revisit. I won’t be here, but that would be the option I would like to see.”

Paul Vogelheim said he was nervous about reopening the use of variances and preferred to keep the focus on the educational use of this particular proposal. The outgoing commissioner’s views were focused mainly on educational options in the valley and less so on the policy-making aspect of the text amendment.

“This isn’t just about Classical Academy, it’s about choices,” Vogelheim said, sharing personal experiences he’s had with area schools like Journeys, the Community School, and Kelly School.

The commissioner also reminded the board that particular concerns like traffic could be addressed later down the line when the school would go through the CUP (Conditional Use Permit) process.

Newcomb stated he remembered the process of reshaping the land development regulations that may have inadvertently made it more difficult to fit a school into the county. If that is the case, he said, we may need to do some revisioning.

Sighting wildlife concerns, Newcomb said, “I just fear right now changing the building size. I do think that, while 10,000 square feet may not be appropriate to accommodate the uses of a school of this scale, it could sure accommodate a lot of it.”

The BCC voted 4-1 to deny a text amendment brought by Owl Happenings LLC that would increase maximum building size from 10,000sf to 15,000sf in R-1 zoning.

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