GUEST OPINION: Fully Engaged

By on September 13, 2016

Why the September 20 special referendum election is a win-win situation.

JACKSON HOLE, WY – I’m sick of writing about this issue, and you’re probably sick of reading about it. But given its importance to our shared future, and the fact those of us who live in Jackson get to vote on it next week, let’s give it one more go.

On Tuesday, September 20, the Town of Jackson will hold a special election for a referendum on recently adopted updates to the District 2 (downtown) land development regulations.

No matter the outcome of this vote, our community wins. Wait, what? Let me explain.

This vote is the culmination of nearly a decade of debate over the future of downtown Jackson, so in order to understand what’s going on, it’s helpful to step back and consider how we arrived at this moment.

First, our community spent six years hashing out our shared vision for downtown (and the rest of our community) through the development and adoption of our Comprehensive Plan. Through this process, most people shared the vision of a downtown Jackson that’s vibrant and walkable with a balanced mix of housing, lodging, and commercial enterprises.

Then, three years ago, the town began the process of updating the downtown land development regulations (LDRs) to align with this vision.

Fast forward to one year ago. Ideally the Jackson Town Council would have been gearing up to adopt updates that would help house our community’s middle class, help our small businesses find and keep hard working employees, and keep downtown vibrant and the heart of our community.

Unfortunately, they were poised to approve zoning changes for downtown Jackson that would have done just the opposite: encouraging a dramatic expansion of commercial development, lodging, short-term rentals, and higher-end condos (i.e. second homes); generating new low-wage jobs staffed by new low-wage employees who need new affordable places to live, all while not providing nearly enough housing affordable to people who live here. These proposed zoning changes would have put Jackson on a path following in Vail’s footsteps to becoming just another resort.

Then, something incredible happened.

Over the past year, hundreds of our friends and neighbors decided to rise up, make our voices heard, and speak up for a better future. At numerous public meetings, people like you walked to the podium, took a deep breath, told their stories, and asked our local elected representatives to prioritize the middle class over more new Marriotts.

Thankfully, our elected representatives listened.

Because hundreds of people like you spoke up, the council completely revamped the proposed downtown LDRs to bring them in line with our community’s vision and ensure they help house our middle class.

This spring, the council began considering completely overhauled updates that strictly limit new commercial and lodging development potential and include an innovative workforce housing incentive program. Once again, hundreds of people like you spoke up and gave the council the support they needed to do the right thing and move forward.

As they neared the finish line, the council had to sort out one final detail: how to structure the workforce housing incentive program to empower the private sector to generate housing that’s affordable to people who work here. Specifically, should short-term rentals be allowed in “incentive” units within the “downtown core” area?

Because of the incredible complexity of this decision, the council debated this issue before voting unanimously to cap the amount of short-term rentals allowed as part of the workforce housing incentive program in the downtown core at 100,000 square feet.

Cap in hand, and after three years of work and more than 50 public meetings, the council unanimously adopted updates to the downtown LDRs early last month.

Then, Save Historic Jackson Hole, concerned about the inclusion of short-term rentals in the workforce housing incentive program, went out and gathered enough signatures to force the council to either repeal all of the just adopted updates to our downtown LDRs, or place them on the ballot for a public vote.

The council then considered repealing the downtown LDRs and bringing them right back for approval without the controversial short-term rental component, but ultimately voted to place them on the ballot, thus the referendum on September 20.

If you’re like most people, you’re probably confused about what’s actually in these updated downtown LDRs that we’re voting on next week. So, let’s look at the facts regarding what they will actually do and have an honest conversation about the long-term consequences of this vote.

The updated downtown LDRs strictly limit new commercial and lodging development potential. They include an innovative workforce housing incentive program that should empower the private sector to generate housing affordable to people who work here. Because they’re streamlined, more predictable, and simplified regulations, they will further encourage appropriate redevelopment. And improved design standards will help make downtown more walkable and better aligned with our community character. (For more information, visit

Sounds pretty good, right? On the whole, they are. That’s why whatever the outcome of next Tuesday’s vote, our community wins.

If our community chooses to vote “yes” and keep the entire package of updated downtown LDRs, it’s a win. Heck, even most of the people who want them repealed admit they got 95 percent of what they wanted out of these updated regulations. If our community chooses to vote “no” and the entire package is repealed, then the council can remove the controversial component and bring the rest of it right back for approval, and our community still wins.

The important thing is that we stay engaged, because when we speak up, our elected representatives listen. So please go to the polls Tuesday, September 20, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. in the Teton County Administration Building (200 South Willow, lower level), and keep speaking up for a better future. 

Craig Benjamin is the executive director of the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance.

About Craig Benjamin

Craig Benjamin is the executive director of the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance.

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