THE BUZZ: Silently Opposed

By on July 7, 2015

Citizens coined ‘protesters’ at meeting while council hesitated on housing.

Jackson’s Town Hall swelled with citizens last Tuesday while councilors deliberated over the subject du jour: residential and commercial development. (Photo: Josh Metten/JH Conservation Alliance)

Jackson’s Town Hall swelled with citizens last Tuesday while councilors deliberated over the subject du jour: residential and commercial development. (Photo: Josh Metten/JH Conservation Alliance)

Jackson Hole, Wyoming – Last Tuesday’s Jackson Town Council meeting yielded an unusual scene in town chambers: Donned in button up shirts and blouses, more than 40 citizens settled in chairs, on windowsills and in the aisles for a meeting to discuss residential and commercial zoning in District 2. Others stood in the corners, shifting their weight from one leg to the other, struggling to see over the crowd, which quickly spilled into the lobby.

In the midst of a historic housing crisis, perhaps no other local issue could amass a more diverse and fervent assembly on a summer eve in Jackson.

Buzz percolated around the meeting when Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance launched a Facebook event encouraging residents to show up. And while audience members held signs reading, “Housing not Hotels,” “Middle Class not Marriotts,” and “Community not Resorts,” they remained silent for the entirety of the meeting, which was not slated for public comment.

But not everyone was in support of a healthy turnout. On Facebook hours before the meeting, Teton County Planning Commissioner John Stennis admonished potential participants.

“I am disappointed that the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance has decided to boycott the Town Council meeting tonight,” Stennis said in the post. “The kind of activist tactics they use have no place in our community and do nothing to foster mutual respect or an open dialogue. Like it or not they are the minority viewpoint yet they act like they represent our interests equally. They see this as winning a ‘war’ against what? Good planning? Thinking about our future? Diversifying our economy? … I actively encourage you not to support the Alliance and encourage them not to boycott tonight’s meeting. Keep the Lodging Overlay as proposed.”

While protesting can be an effective tool in sparking societal change, in this instance, labeling citizens as protesters or activists, as some officials and media outlets have done, is a tactic used to discourage others from getting involved, explained Dr. McGreggor Cawley, a political science professor at University of Wyoming.

“If people work through the system, then they are viewed as ‘responsible’ citizens, but if they go outside the system then they become ‘irresponsible’ citizens and should be ignored [by the mainstream],” he said. “The battle here – by calling people protesters – is to change perception. There are people in the public who view protesters as irresponsible, as troublemakers, and so rather than treating them as people, who, at least in their minds, have legitimate complaints, protesters are relegated to this category of troublemakers who should be ignored.”

Among the meeting’s attendants was carpenter and mountain guide John Douglass, a 20-year Jackson resident. While he said he recognizes the complexity of striking a balance between housing and commercial development, Douglass disagrees with the label slapped on citizens who attended the meeting.

“The people who have been coming and speaking at the meetings who are on the opposite side of the fence – have they been considered protesters?” Douglass asked. “Community members trying to find a way to express their opinions are not protesters.”

Councilman Jim Stanford, who made several pleas during the meeting – to no avail – for councilors to take a renegade position by rezoning for residential development in certain areas of District 2, pointed out that regardless of how they’re labeled, citizens who attend meetings wield power.

“The greatest way to have an impact on the process is to show up,” he said, “that is something I learned quickly once I got on the council. It wasn’t always apparent to me or to a lot of others … some prefer writing an original email to the council or signing a petition and that’s great, but if you want to have a voice you need to come to the chambers.”

Sam Petri, a 34-year-old East Jackson resident who works in media relations, attended the meeting to send a message to local officials. “The reason we showed up was to let it be known that we believe strongly in the housing issue,” he said. “I’m an advocate for housing in Jackson, not a protester of the council meeting.”

Playing a key role in mobilizing citizens to attend the meeting was JH Conservation Alliance’s executive director Craig Benjamin, who was encouraged by the robust turnout. “There is nothing more American than constructively engaging in our civic process and speaking up for a better future,” Benjamin said. “It’s incredibly disappointing that some people who stand to individually benefit from proposed zoning changes tried to label the citizens respectfully participating in our democracy as protesters.”

However, Mayor Sara Flitner told Jackson Hole Daily in its July 2 issue that folks holding signs did not play a role in the outcome. “I was being asked whether the signs being waived were distracting or if they caused us to change our thinking, but we have been factoring everyone’s comments in the whole time,” Flitner later clarified to The Planet.

Also in attendance Tuesday was Nancy Hoffman. She has lived in the valley since 1978. A former planning commission board member who now volunteers in the nonprofit sector, Hoffman said she has watched a dire housing situation unfold in Jackson and is particularly concerned about the lack of recognition given to low income families and seniors in need of housing, not just the middle class. “I think the council was being political,” she said. “I don’t think they realize the critical issues they are facing.” Hoffman said she hoped the council would have taken the aggressive housing position they began with during the housing summit in June.

A hearty turnout may have helped sway some of the council’s decisions.

One victory for citizens arrived at the beginning of the meeting when the council agreed to remove lodging as a preferred use in the TN-1 district, the downtown’s core. Landowners there will only receive additional density if they build housing. But as the meeting endured into the second and then third hour, a few unique opportunities to create housing arrived when Stanford urged the council to take a courageous stance.

Occupying 60,000 square feet of land zoned for commercial use that has yet to be developed, the area at the base of Snow King Mountain could be rezoned for residential, Stanford explained as audience members raised their signs in agreement.

We can be bold and zone [for downtown residential],” he said. “This is what the community is asking for and we have the opportunity to do it … we are not causing economic hardship, we would be creating opportunity all around while nurturing the heart of our community, which is Snow King.”

Stanford also suggested rezoning for residential development in the areas near the Brew Pub (and soon-to-be Marriott), and north of Miller Park. Councilman Don Frank sided with Stanford musing how nice it would be to live in a neighborhood near the Brew Pub. He also noted that the future employees of Marriott might enjoy living in the area, too.

But Councilors Bob Lenz, Hailey Morton Levinson and Flitner resisted. Flitner told The Planet that instead she anticipates future discussions about creating housing in Districts 3, 4 and 5 – in East Jackson, mid-town and West Jackson.

Stanford isn’t keen on that idea. “We’re digging a deeper hole,” he said. “The more the housing problem worsens, the more we’re going to have to change the character of existing neighborhoods.”

Town planners will now take the direction they have received from town council and revise regulations. They expect to have a revision completed in about a month. Community members will then have an opportunity to comment on the next draft before council members vote.

About Robyn Vincent

Robyn is the editor of Planet Jackson Hole and Jackson Hole Snowboarder Magazine. When she's not sweating deadlines, she likes to travel the world with her notebook and camera in hand. Follow her on Twitter @TheNomadicHeart

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