FEATURE: Man with the Plan

By on March 29, 2016

Real talk with long-range planner Alex Norton on community growth and values.


Photo by Sargent Schutt.

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Probably every generation of Jackson Holers viewed their beloved valley on the cusp of irreversible change. From the first settlers who dared stick out a Jackson Hole winter, to the generation of the 1940s and 50s residents who enjoyed the peaceful mountain community isolated and insulated from the outside world’s influences.

Then came the airport, the ski resort, and the Information Age. Word was out: Jackson Hole was the last and the best of the Old West; a place frozen in time that harkened back to an uncluttered and simpler time. And they came. To visit, to work and play, to retire and live in the unspoiled wonder that is Jackson’s Hole. Or was.

Again, the community now finds itself on the brink. Housing opportunities are at an all-time hardship high. Year-round traffic rivals some big cities, and in summer it’s simply brutal. New units barely trickle into the inventory while large apartment complexes like Blair Place cause turnover by jacking the rent, and the recently announced upgrade of the Virginian Apartments will remove an additional 56 affordable units and displace renters just as the summer crunch hits. Drugs and crime are creeping in, while wildlife and natural habitat are being metaphorically and literally run over and flattened.

An assessment of our community values is purportedly found in a county document called a Comprehensive Plan. The latest iteration was completed in 2012 after a lengthy and arduous process. The plan’s “author” is joint long-range planner Alex Norton. He will claim none of the document’s bazillion words are his, and it’s true. He’s merely compiled the manuscript. But no one on this planet knows more about where we as a community want to be headed, and why we may or may not be getting there, than Norton.

If the Comp Plan is a visionary document that guides growth toward our collective desires, Land Development Regulations (LDR) are the rules applied by the town and county planning departments to ensure we are sticking to the script. As LDR revisions continue and elections loom this fall, the tug-of-war that has been waged in Jackson Hole for decades will only escalate.

Planet Jackson Hole: Let’s start with the question on the minds of many people when it comes to the Comprehensive Plan. The revision of the 1994 Plan began in 2007. You jumped in full time on it in 2008. It was finally finished in 2012, though we are still working through the residual LDR updates. What took so dang long?

Alex Norton: It’s one of the things we get frustrated with as well. One of the key takeaways is how do we make these processes more efficient? One way is you’ve got to establish a process up front and you’ve got to stick to it. The process gets drawn out and you start to repeat yourself when you start missing deadlines and start re-reviewing things you’ve already reviewed. So if you’ve got a big public comment process and you’ve identified a whole bunch of issues that need to be discussed, and then you move to the next step of the process and find yourself starting all over again—people start to see that happening and think, “Well I’m not going to participate now. I’m going to wait until the end.” Then they start jockeying for last comment

Then things get drawn out, circumstances change. The world is very different now than it was in 2012, in terms of economic climate, and that draws things out further because you have to recalibrate the objectives. It’s just this cycle that keeps going.

PJH: OK, well now it’s finally done. Just in time to begin working on the next update, right? Assuming we ever get the Land Development Regulations finished.

Norton: Maybe the biggest shift in thinking from the 1994 Plan, or even the 1978 Plan, is the idea that this is a fluid, living document and it’s hard to put a period on that and say it’s done. We are never going to be done. The LDRs are never going to be done.

PJH: Never going to be done? That sounds like job security for you. What do you mean?

Norton: One of the recommendations out of the Comp Plan was this growth management program that includes reviews and check backs like the annual indicator report, and annual work plan. The way the growth management plan is set up we are supposed to check back in once we hit 5 percent growth from 2012 in residential units, which will be next year. So next spring around this time we will be talking about reevaluating the Comp Plan. That doesn’t mean we need a new Comp Plan.

The CP is a living document and the whole growth management program is predicated on this idea of adaptive management. We are going to keep track of what’s really going on. We are going to evaluate what our biggest needs are and what do we need to address; what’s working and what’s not working? It’s moving away from the idea that you finish things and put a period on it, then you address it again in 20 years, toward this idea that we are going to keep track and know where we are in real time and evaluate what our priorities are at any given time. I think to a certain extent it’s a culture change away from the idea that we are ever going to be “done”—we are never going to be done—toward this idea that we are going to adaptively manage and prioritize.

Caption 2: Images and maps in Alex Norton’s office serve as a reminder: Developable land in the valley is finite. Hemmed in by public lands on every side, a mere 3 percent of land in Teton County is left to haggle over and plan for. (Photo: Sargent Schutt)

Images and maps in Alex Norton’s office serve as a reminder: Developable land in the valley is finite. Hemmed in by public lands on every side, a mere 3 percent of land in Teton County is left to haggle over and plan for. (Photo: Sargent Schutt)

The idea is if you check in on a more regular basis, do we really need to rethink this whole thing? Hopefully, that’s a culture shift where we get to the understanding that we don’t need to overhaul everything because we can just make little tweaks.

PJH: This is a fairly radical change in approach, but it makes sense. Weren’t we monitoring ourselves before? You can’t just put in all the time and effort to make a Comprehensive Plan for a community, and then sign off on it and put it on a shelf saying you’ll review how we did in another two decades.

Norton: Exactly. The 94 Plan—well, all plans—say we are going to track it, but it comes down to dedicating the resources, and actually doing it and committing to it. Because of the community’s desire to have the 2012 Plan be more quantitative and numbers-based, we knew we had to be very responsive to the fact that people want to know what’s going on.

This indicator report lays out a lot of trends. In the heat of the moment a lot of people are looking at a single issue or single perspective, but keep in mind it is all a part of a bigger picture. This story is timely with this first indicator report coming out now. I want people to know that and many other resources are out there—sources of information that monitor the Comp Plan. We have made this shift instead of making it up as we go, we have this calculated and monitored approach. That’s the biggest thing that happened from ‘94 to 2012.

PJH: Let’s back up. When you began with the Comp Plan revision nine years ago, what was the process?

Norton: The Comp Plan process, and the length of the process, was largely attributable to the conversation about growth limits and the desire of some in the community to have the plan based on a limited amount of growth. Some people wanted an analysis of the impacts of buildout, and figuring out the final plan for the end or the fully built out Jackson Hole; versus other comments focusing more on these character goals we want to achieve. They were more concerned with, “What are the steps we want to take incrementally to ensure we still have the community we want?” They had less concern over what the end game might look like, because we will get to the end game arguably never.

So there were these two kinds of pushing and pulling philosophies with commentary made on both sides. That is what drove the Comp Plan, and caused it to go back and forth. It was such a contentious conversation and trying to balance that is ultimately the task of the elected officials.

PJH: The public was given numerous opportunities to weigh in. Did their opinions matter?

Norton: There was a lot of opportunity to comment during the process particularly because of how long and drawn out it was. In sifting through feedback, we try not to evaluate comments based on quantity. It’s more about merit and the ideas behind the comment—the pros and cons of the suggestion. Just because somebody came up with an idea, sent it to all of their friends and all of their friends copied us on the same 30 emails, doesn’t change the pros and cons of the idea. We try to go through all the comments and identify all the different suggestions for the elected officials. If the same comment is suggested multiple times we put it there once. We try to present a breakdown with the repetition removed.

PJH: People in the community were worried about keeping growth in check back in 1994. Did it become even more of an issue for the 2012 Comp Plan?

Norton: Growth limiting was on the table from the very beginning. It wasn’t as much of a force driving the conversations in ‘94, but it was obviously part of it because the 94 Plan specifically addresses buildout.

There was a consultant who submitted a proposal in 2007 who advocated a numbers-based approach. Another was more of a character-based approach. From the very beginning the two finalists in terms of the consultants to help were defined by a juxtaposition of the numbers-based approach versus the character-based approach. Clarion was the one we selected because the [town] council and the [county] commission said they wanted to go the character route because of the interrelation of all the different pieces, and the inability to create one-size-fits-all prioritization with the numbers scheme.

PJH: As a community, did our priorities change much from 1994 to 2012? What, if any, was the biggest game-changer between the two documents?

Norton: To a large extent the community’s core values are the same—in terms of managing growth, the importance of wildlife and natural resources, the need for housing, and the desire for alternate modes of transportation rather than just building bigger and more roads. At the highlevel view, a lot of that is still the same.

The fundamental shift from the 94 Plan to the 2012 Plan was the introduction of the growth management program, which is this annual longer term review of the Comp Plan to make sure we are actually using the best available data. The 94 Plan doesn’t have that. It’s just a series of goals all included in a single document. It created a case-by-case evaluation for elected officials. The 94 Plan was consciously about flexibility and discretion. It said: Here are all of our goals. We are going to give the landowner flexibility to propose his or her own balance of those goals, and we are going to give the elected officials the discretion to review on behalf of the community whether those proposals provided the appropriate balance.

The new plan better defines things for the electeds and developers. It’s moving from that idea of flexibility and discretion to the idea of a more predictable, laid out, upfront plan. The big ways we did that were the implementation of the character districts.

PJH: So the thinking is, by taking a little decision-making off the plate of electeds and clarifying for landowners upfront what is allowable, we can streamline the planning process and get more desirable and predictable outcomes?

Norton: Yes, this should provide that big picture view to give landowners and elected officials a little more clarity with certain questions that are already answered, so we don’t need to revisit and retread those with every application. That’s the biggest shift. With the character districts and the implementation of an indicator report, we can actually look at this stuff and have the metrics we need to track where we are going and how we are doing.

Let’s take a current example. Everybody knows that we need housing right now. It’s a big issue. But just because we need housing doesn’t mean we should put housing anywhere somebody’s willing to build it, because that might contradict some other goals in the Comp Plan. Under the 94 Plan, that would be a case-by-case review. The 2012 Plan provides that next step to say we want to provide housing but we want to put it in these areas. So if you are trying to do a PUD in town, that makes a lot more sense than if you are trying to get an upzone in, say, Spring Gulch or somewhere not identified as appropriate for housing.

PJH: And where do we want housing?

Norton: There was conversation through the Comp Plan process about whether Wilson is an appropriate place. Is Aspens an appropriate place? What about Teton Village or the Town of Jackson, or Hog Island? Ultimately what came out of that was the character districts map where the Comp Plan talks about having 60 percent of growth occur in complete neighborhoods.

Some complete neighborhoods are appropriate for additional potential and some are appropriate for buildout of their existing potential. Wilson and the Aspens are identified as complete neighborhoods with appropriate population centers. We are not looking to reduce density, or transfer density out of these areas, but we are also not looking to increase potential density by transferring density in. Whereas Teton Village and the Town of Jackson were identified as areas appropriate to add potential and push density in. There was also conversation about Hog Island, where maybe there is some additional density appropriate there to facilitate the home business, light industrial-type situation on a lot of lots down there.

PJH: Speaking of Hog Island, there is a new elementary school going in down there. It’s a bit off the beaten track, some say. Are we just going to build up a city around that?

Norton: There are certainly areas in the community where that’s what happens: A school is built somewhere on the periphery of the community and the longterm solution is we are just going to grow up to it. As it stands right now that’s not the community’s goal for Hog Island. We’ve identified Hog Island as a place where there is an opportunity to provide some kind of light industrialtype opportunities knowing that there are a lot of those home services, light and heavy industrial uses there currently. That’s a character that residents down there identified with and we are comfortable with.

Right now Hog Island has this purpose in the Comp Plan that is a little more dense than 1 [unit] per 35 [acres]. It’s not a rural area that we want to conserve. But we are also not saying, “OK, there’s a school there now, let’s build a town around it.” To move to the idea that we want to build a town around it, it would have to be a Comp Plan amendment and a fundamental shift in the role that Hog Island plays in meeting the community’s goals in general. Certainly the way that a lot of communities in America would approach it would be to just grow towards it and fill in around it.

PJH: That gets into the issue of whether institutional growth, like a new school in Hog Island, is a growth-driver or follower. Institutional growth is booming in the valley. Are we catching up to population growth with new amenities or are we building things to attract more people to work in them?

Norton: The whole institutional as a driver of growth is a complicated conversation. The numbers would indicate that institutional uses have been a generator of employees. That’s not the same as driving growth. Generator of employees essentially means that we’ve created a lot of workspace for institutional employees. So employee-generation is essentially a measure of where employees work not necessarily why the employee exists. For example, a bartender works in a bar. But the construction of the bar is not why the bartender exists. The bartender exists because people are demanding drinks.

I just want to make it clear that employee-generation doesn’t mean driver. The question of what is driving growth is a much more complicated economic question. Is it residents? Is it visitors? Is it residents plus visitors? Is it the construction industry? We’ve definitely had more growth in institutional floor area than in other type of development. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that’s driving growth. That might be the outcome not the driver. It’s hard to distinguish the two necessarily.

PJH: But even during the economic downturn when no one was building much of anything, we saw institutional growth continue at a brisk pace. At the same time, more jobs were being created than we have people to fill them.

Norton: There’s any number of reasons why this stuff happens.  A large institutional project is a little more insulated from some of the funding issues that happened when the housing bubble burst. One of the things that we identified in the indicator report is if you look at employment growth/job growth and compared that with other types of growth, it is not necessarily physical development that is driving job growth. It can’t be because it is not growing nearly as fast. We don’t know what is. But the important thing from our standpoint is, if there is obviously something else driving the job growth that isn’t physical development then we can’t expect physical development to be the solution. If we know it’s not the entirety of the problem we can’t expect it to be the entirety of the solution.

PJH: The Comp Plan revision happened over such a long course of time. When we began, the economy was booming. Everyone wanted to pump the brakes. By the time you were wrapping it up, the economy was tanking. To what extent did external forces, like the relevant temperature of the economy at any given moment, play into the plan?

Norton: It certainly was always a part of the conversation. When we started the process in 2007-08, it was the peak of the pressure. There was a lot of big growth and a pump-the-brakes [attitude], and maybe there wasn’t quite as much of that by 2012. But as you see in the recent past, there has been a lot more of a pump-the-brakes-type conversation when the council and the board were discussing nonresidential potential. They were very much [saying], “Housing is our priority so let’s hit the brakes and not add any nonresidential potential that might make things worse until we address the housing issue.”

But it’s a cyclical thing, and we did a fairly good job as a community in not overreacting. There’s going to be peaks and valleys, and we can plan knowing that the steepest ups aren’t going to be forever and the downs aren’t going to be forever.

PJH: Is it especially difficult to be a planner in a community like Jackson Hole, where we are literally so globally influenced? We triple our population in summer with tourists. Billionaires are squeezing out the millionaires, etc.

Norton: Well, one of the nice parts about working here is this community has the engagement, the resources, the intellectual capital that you would get in some of those larger communities in America. But we are still a small town. Would it be easier in some places that didn’t have those [outside] things coming together? Probably. But the beauty and fun of being a planner here is there is no shortage of opinions; there is no shortage of people who are willing to put the time and effort into trying to really understand what is going on, and provide informed comment and opinion. That’s something that, in larger communities, planners are just clawing for people to participate.

People feel very passionate about this place. Everybody has a very strong sense of place and the opinions to go along with that, and that’s not something you get everywhere. This is a place where people are here for a reason. There are not many people who feel like they are stuck here or landed here by chance. It’s not an easy place and it never has been. You have to make a commitment to be here and that provides a certain level of involvement that planners in other places would love to have.

PJH: You were born here. You grew up here. Pretend for a moment you are not Alex Norton the planner. You are Alex Norton the Jackson kid who has watched his hometown grow to where it is now. Do you like what you see?

Norton: Part of the reason I do what I do is there is not a difference between the two people. I do this because there is not Alex the long-range planner, and Alex the resident. It’s the same person.

In terms of what’s changed and what is different—this is still a place I want to live. I still have made a conscious decision that I want to be here rather than somewhere else. I went to school in New York; I’ve been in other places. Just because I grew up here I’m not here because I’m stuck here. I’m here because I choose to be here. And it’s nice to be a planner and have some influence on keeping it a desirable place to be. PJH

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