Rice gets his apartments, town relents in unison

JACKSON HOLE, WYO – When Joe Rice last tried to push his 90-unit apartment building through the needle-eye hole that is town land planning regulations, he left disappointed, on the wrong end of an impending 3-1 vote. Impending because Rice reserved the right to pull his application that night two weeks ago for a better time—a time when the absent Don Frank would be back in his chair. Frank had made gestures he was a “friendly.”

Councilors say this isn’t about Rice’s project, especially two of the three who had stated they were not comfortable granting the text amendment to the LDRs Rice was seeking to help get it through. But the Rice’s Sagebrush Apartment dream was inextricably tied up in the ask for a tweak to land regs. Mayor Pete Muldoon and Jim Stanford were both deliberate and careful with their words as they expressed concerns at the March 20 meeting, and again at last Monday’s meeting, that unintended consequences and other, presumably less-scrupled developers besides the trusted Rice could pop up in the future and condo-ize apartments for the rich and famous.

But on Monday, Muldoon, Stanford, and Bob Lenz all changed their tunes. The text amendment that would waive affordable housing mitigation for apartment rental projects of 20 units or more was granted, and Rice got what was looking for.

How it happened

Frank led the dialogue with a full court press. He said dense apartment buildings like this were “self-mitigating.” He said it would take $1.2 billion in taxpayer money to build enough housing for everyone who needed in Jackson Hole and here was project that wouldn’t cost government a dime. He said he was committed to the promise made in the Housing Action Plan that stated barriers should be removed for projects that had the potential to put affordable housing on the ground.

“Even today we talked about people camping in parking lots and families sleeping on the streets in a car. Goodness gracious, we can do better than that,” Frank said, referring to an earlier discussion that evening about emergency camping measures in Jackson for this summer.

Stanford countered, “I think it’s worth asking in these emotional examples…how did the family end up in the car to begin with? Rent hikes. [People priced out of their rentals] came to us and unfortunately we haven’t been able to help them. The only thing that ensures affordability is deed restrictions. To me it’s really hard to give away deed restrictions.”

Muldoon admitted he would like to remove some barriers, too, but the text amendment was asking for a lot in tradeoff.

“This is a tough one. We are talking about a text amendment that makes us rely on a developer. I don’t put a lot of stock in that. The only way to ensure is deed restrictions. They work,” Muldoon said. “Blair Place [for example] is a very valuable place in town. How will this text amendment get us another Blair Place? I don’t have a clear answer.”

Frank kept at it.

“I’m not a Pollyanna on this issue and I realize we have to manage risk,” he said. “But you want empirical evidence, Mr. Mayor, you’ve got to build them, monitor them, and find out. We can speculate or move forward, or else we are doing the Chicken Little thing. I understand the text amendment can have implications. But you can talk about building a house or build a house. I’d like us to show some leadership tonight.”

When it appeared the tide was turning, with his peers conceding to at least see if staff couldn’t keep massaging the LDR rewrite into something they could get behind in a few more weeks, Frank called them out.

“Time is precious. Look at Redmond-Hall where [we faced a deadline] and we all bent our wills,” Frank said. “I’m not comfortable putting this off any longer…Time is valuable and I don’t think it’s fair to keep this applicant on the hook for months and months. I would like to put a motion on the floor.”

Frank did. With five of his own conditions crafted to help assuage fears the proposal could backfire. The bold move so startled Stanford, he asked for a recess. When the council came back they were of a different mind. What had hemmed and hawed and stalled before suddenly passed in 45 seconds. Unanimously.

“This is a win for the working class,” Rice told Buckrail, after the decision. “As we have said all along, apartments are a big part of solution and the private sector can really put a dent in it. There are a lot of people with the resources in this community that benefit from the service industry, teachers, hospital, town and county staff, the police and other first responders. I challenge each and every one of them to step up to the plate and do what John Shelton and our team is doing. If you want to make a difference, let’s get together and really make it happen.”

The ordinance amending LDRs to consider apartment complexes as inherently workforce housing and thereby dropping the requirement developers of those projects must provide 25% deed-restricted housing will need three readings to become official. Meanwhile, Rice will bring his project through the process beginning early next month.

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