With Huhn’s Hog Island housing dream crushed – Is the conversation over?

JACKSON HOLE, WYO — The issue of Munger Mountain Residential and any approval of an amendment to the Comprehensive Plan in order to establish new zoning in Hog Island for increased density is extremely complex.

To be clear, elected officials were not being tasked with weighing the merits of Larry Huhn’s workforce housing project per se. In order to even be considered, the application would have to be granted an amendment to the Comp Plan, which set zoning parameters on the Robertson parcel in question that would not allow for such a dense development (150 units on 84 acres).

Altering the Comprehensive Plan—a guiding document that represents community visions over broad expanses of time—is something elected officials have been reluctant to do in the past. The Comp Plan was many years and hundreds of thousands of dollars in the making and, as Mayor Pete Muldoon pointed out, “We were being asked to amend the Comp Plan with very little process because we had an opportunity we [supposedly] couldn’t pass up.”

Tammy Clark, a resident of Hog Island, shares her concerns about the housing project proposed at a JIM last month as Larry Huhn (center background) and project consultant Y2’s Scott Pierson (right background) listen in. (TOJ)

Many in the affected neighborhood would also have to be considered. Any change to the Comp Plan-defined “stable” character of Hog Island, which staff said is a mix of single-family residences with industrial home businesses and agricultural characteristics, would also have to be reasonably explained to area residents.

An amendment to the Comp Plan could also be an open door as far as precedent to any future developer who may argue, “They got theirs, why can’t I get mine?”

Finally, when elected did focus on the details of Huhn’s application, some were put off by the nature of the units’ “affordability” and guarantees they could remain so. Lots were expected to sell for $200,000 a piece with modular buildouts on them amounting to what Huhn estimated would be a half million dollars for a stand-alone home with a yard in Jackson Hole.

Going against the Comp Plan and its current definition of Hog Island and associated zoning is what ultimately caused both the town and county staff to recommend denial, and both town and county planning commissions to recommend denial.

There were simply too many reasons for electeds to vote against the project, even those who said they liked a lot about it.

Missed opportunity?

Huhn called the decision last month a huge missed opportunity.

“I seriously think they missed the boat over some technicalities. They will end up losing control and see a bunch of one-acre lots down there that they won’t be able to control,” Huhn said referring to the passage of HB196 (Local regulation-subdivisions) at the state legislative session earlier this year. The bill would allow large landowners to subdivide 35-acre parcels into lots as small as one acre as long as the land was passed on to an immediate family member.

Councilman Arne Jorgensen said, “This is a multi-layered issue. There is not a guaranteed outcome. What’s affordable today, will it be affordable in the future? The economic pressures of today mean you need to be very careful about structuring goals of affordability over the longterm.”

Huhn further challenged the county, in particular, to seize the opportunity to take control over development in Teton County.

“The conversation has always been pushed by the property owner. Ideally, developers should not be coming to the Board of County Commissioners to see what they might be able to [get away with] on a piece of property. Town and county could actually take control over zoning but there has to be economic incentives to the landowner,” Huhn contended. “Our housing crisis is basically self-made by poor decisions made decade after decade. Every large landowner hasn’t been able to get along with Teton County. Nobody has gotten along with them for the last 20 or 30 years.”

Right location?

Munger Mountain Elementary School (TCSD) land in green. Proposed development site of 84-acre parcel framed in yellow. (Teton County GIS)

It might surprise some to learn the man proposing dense development 11 miles south of town is as anti-growth as they come. Huhn said he is vehemently opposed to the same urban sprawl many fear his project would beget. He is also not a fan of really any new development in Teton County—a homeplace he’s watched change beyond recognition.

“That said, you have a highway there. You have sewer there. You have a school there. Infrastructure is there, demand is there, it’s a done deal. You can either acknowledge it or put blinders on and walk by it the rest of your life,” Huhn said. “Sure, the most logical place is near Smiths (north South Park). Problem is you have no landowners who will work with the county on anything there.”

Still, some electeds, in voting down the application, thought the parcel too far south to help alleviate traffic headaches and, may in fact contribute to congestion on S. Highway 89. At least for now.

“Teton County and its residents must still react to two major land-use decisions that were made without the support of the county—the widening of S. Highway 89, and the siting of the new elementary school in Hog Island,” Commissioner Luther Propst stated in an email to Buckrail. “As the Comprehensive Plan already recognized before these two decisions, that [when it comes to development] on land along S. Highway 89: the closer to Smith’s the better. With these land-use changes, the community has a sense of urgency to decide the future of South Park, Hog Island, and south of town.”

Affordability?

Are $200k lots and $500k homes affordable? Depends on who you ask. For years, the County’s Affordable Housing Department put emphasis on homeownership rather than rentals, even providing ‘attainable’ units that topped $500,000 more than a decade ago.

Lately, though, there has been a shift to a rental model serving to the lowest-income segment of the population with the most need. But a growing need still exists in the upper-middle class gap where working professionals are over-qualified for affordable housing rentals and ill-equipped to compete with multi-millionaires in the free market for homeownership.

A workforce housing project proposed for Hog Island would need an amendment to the Comprehensive Plan in order to carve out a new subarea 7.3. (Courtesy Y2 Consultants)

“Maybe some 20% of the workers in Teton County are transient. What they are doing right now is great for those workers. But people are retiring and selling out, and we are losing housing stock and nobody cares,” Huhn said. “And the mayor does not care about the top 25% wage earners in this county. He is more concerned with lowest. The biggest heap of hurt is with these top 25% wage-earning professionals who are looking for a single-family home. They are the ones who want to be here long-term. They are committed to being here and being a part of the community.”

“I looked at likely affordability of those homes,” Muldoon said. At $800,000 to a million, is that affordable housing? Maybe. Is it our greatest need? No.”

Other decision-makers balk at the affordability concept as well as anything that goes agains the grain of the Comprehensive Plan. Councilman Jonathan Schechter said he would have to see something super-compelling to alter the Comp Plan at this time, and he was not assured enough that Huhn’s development would remain affordable through the years as solely a 100% deed-restricted project rather than one with income restrictions.

“I just could not get over the threshold of making a case that would blow another big hole in the Comp Plan,” Schechter said, referring to the placement of the Munger Mountain Elementary School. “How do we then say no to the next proposal? And soon we will have completely destroyed the goals of the Comp Plan has spent an enormous amount of money and time making as a community.”

Huhn counters that income and asset restrictions imposed by the Housing Department have become so cumbersome they cannot be properly enforced. His plan, he says, is simpler and price is controlled by the market.

“A 100% permanently deed-restricted project remains affordable by definition. You basically prevent growth down the road. I want to show them how simple this is,” Huhn argued. “And the way they do it now with a lottery draw amongst the neediest is what the Soviet Union was based on. It was not who worked the hardest, it was if you remained in poverty and were lucky enough to win a lottery. If you want cheap housing, okay, but I really don’t care to have cheap housing. I want someone who wants to work hard and is incentivized to make an effort.”

Now what?

A reconsideration of the vote that squelched Huhn’s Hog Island housing idea never materialized yesterday. That means, for now, the project is dead. Town and county officials talked about putting a priority on a potential Hog Island rezone via the Annual Indicator Report and Implementation Work Plan but it might be too late for Huhn.

“I’ve kind of put it in their ballpark. They are either going to push this project or not. I’m not trying to cram anything down any one’s throat,” Huhn said. “If they think this needs a closer look, great, otherwise I will give this back to the Robertsons.”

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