By Angus M. Thuermer Jr., WyoFile
A Teton County developer last week withdrew his proposal to build a high-end subdivision on state school trust land, raising fresh questions about the state’s quest for new education revenue.
John Resor, developer of the Shooting Star subdivision near Teton Village and the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, wrote state officials Oct. 26 saying he no longer favored developing a 640-acre school section within two miles of the ski area. Resor had submitted the only significant development proposal to the state after it sought ideas for building on — and generating revenue from — 18 state- and school-trust parcels in Teton County.
Instead of development, “personally, I would like to see a conservation solution work that meets both the state’s and the community’s goals,” Resor wrote Jason Crowder, deputy director of the Office of State Lands and Investment. “…I was particularly excited to see and review the Jackson Hole Land Trust’s proposal” for conservation, he wrote.
Lawmakers launched the development bid earlier this year and the Office of State Lands and Investments received 30 letters in response. Many of the proposals called for conservation options. Some proposals sought agricultural uses, one sought a single-family homesite and one proposed a sprawling forest-edge luxury camping operation on another 640-acre state school section.
But the state failed to garner interest from hotel or other commercial interests that some lawmakers figured might embrace high-revenue development on valuable real estate. Lawmakers seek to increase revenue from state property at a time income from the fossil fuel industry is in a nosedive.
Resor’s original plan called for leasing the school section near the ski area for development of a low density subdivision compatible with Teton County character and growth plans but capable of delivering a steady stream of revenue to the state. Subdivision lots would have been as large as 50 or 100 acres, Resor said in an interview.
Millions for conservation
Crowder on Friday released a report by the state lands office that called Resor’s original development proposal “feasible” while noting it had also been withdrawn. Crowder’s 209-page report also addressed a conservation plan from the Jackson Hole Land Trust for preserving scenic, agricultural and wildlife values on part of the property.
Today the state leases the property, located in the middle of Resor family holdings, for agriculture, recreation and construction operations, earning $45,972 a year. The Resor family, which controls thousands of acres in the valley through various entities, agrees with a conservation plan for the property that bisects its holdings, he said.
“I think the family feels it’s better for the Land Trust to lead this effort,” he told WyoFile. Land Trust officials did not return calls and emails for comment.
That conservation pursuit, Resor said, would be “the best for the community.” The question is whether such an option could deliver a level of revenue “that would be acceptable to the state.”
In his report, Crowder cautioned that the Wyoming Board of Land Commissioners — Wyoming’s top five elected officials who oversee school trust lands — is loath to encumber its property with easements, including conservation easements. “The Board of Land Commissioners has expressed concern about placing a permanent encumbrance on state trust land and has only approved one to date,” he wrote several times in his report.
A conservation proposal, however, could be constructed to meet the twin goals of the 2020 legislation that pushed the state’s Teton lands to the front burner, Resor said. Those are to keep Teton property in state hands while simultaneously capitalizing on the high value of property here and generating a new stream of revenue for schools.
A conservation proposal, Resor said, could entail leasing the school section for 75 years for an annual amount that would be the equivalent of what the parcel would bring if it were sold and proceeds invested. The agreement would have to include a conservation renewal option at the end of the 75-year lease “based on new appraisals,” he said.
Such a plan for a property worth $50 million might cost conservationists between $2 million and $3 million a year, he said. The so-called Teton Village school trust parcel has not been publicly appraised recently, making Resor’s example hypothetical.
But the state’s conservation sale of a different 640-acre school section in Grand Teton National Park in 2016 offers insight to land values and the county’s appetite for conservation.
The 2016 sale earned the state $46 million for schools and other institutions. The Grand Teton National Park Foundation raised half of that — $23 million — in eight months from 5,421 donors.
Resor submitted his now-withdrawn proposal for the Jensen Canyon Development on the Teton Village school section because it could meet both state and community needs and forestall higher-impact development.
“If I didn’t put a proposal in, we would be leaving ourselves open,” he said. High-density development would impact owners in the Resor family’s Shooting Star development, would harm the family’s Snake River Ranch, would denigrate the tourism experience in Jackson Hole and cause other detrimental consequences, he said.
A hotel or casino plan would have brought risks from developers who “do not really know about the community and what the values were,” he said.
“If somebody was going to develop the school section, we would be the best people to do it because we would do it in a low-density manner,” Resor said of his original plan. Low-density development would bring “the same financial returns as a dense development,” he said.
The looming question for a conservation option would be whether the community and Land Trust could raise enough to be acceptable to the state.
The effort would require significant fundraising, “a very challenging uphill process,” Resor said. The guiding principle would be “what’s good for the state,” he said.
Since development of Shooting Star in about 2007, a unique property-transfer fee has generated some $4 million for the Jackson Hole Land Trust and another $4.5 million for the valley bus service and pathways, he said. That illustrates a new way for subdivisions to generate a revenue stream, Resor said.
Two Teton County lawmakers agreed that the new twist in the state’s plans to generate more money from valuable Teton County property underscores the difficulty of Wyoming’s pursuit. Sen. Mike Gierau (D-Teton) told WyoFile that Wyoming would see difficulties developing state property anywhere in Wyoming.
“I don’t think it’s any different in any other county,” he said of the state’s Teton initiative, “there are just more zeros at the end of it.”
Crowder recently told members of the Joint Appropriations Committee, on which Gierau sits, he has received inquiries from other potential developers who haven’t submitted letters. Those who are “waiting in the wings,” as Gierau put it, have missed the state deadline for proposals but are potentially part of the process nevertheless.
“That’s another reason I believe this is a flawed process,” he said, criticizing the 2020 law that called for development plans in Teton County only.
“I prefer the conservation proposal,” Gierau said.
Rep. Andy Schwartz (D-Jackson), another JAC member, also had problems with the state’s 2020 Teton development law.
“I have been cautioning people in Cheyenne about unrealistic expectations,” he said. “Development in Teton County is a complicated process.”
County residents recognize the need to support the school system, Schwartz said. Because of high land values here, residents contribute $15 million to out-of-county schools through property taxes, Schwartz said. “We send to Cheyenne about $15 million more a year than Teton County School District No. 1 gets from the state,” he said.
There’s also Teton County’s sales tax contributions to Wyoming. Half of that comes from tourism, which includes high-value second homes, Schwartz said.
Teton County generated $106.5 million in sales and use taxes in 2019, according to the Wyoming Department of Revenue, and sent more than $43 million to state coffers.
Schwartz likened tourism in Teton County to coal mining or oil and gas drilling in other parts of Wyoming. “Tourism is our mineral industry,” Schwartz said. “We have to protect it.”
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