THE BUZZ 2: Housing Watch

By on April 18, 2017

The private sector throws the housing crisis a few lifelines.

Tent season is descending upon Jackson’s workforce. (Photo: Library of Congress)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – While solving the valley’s housing crisis has been largely focused on creating subsidized, affordable housing, a string of recent town council meetings has highlighted the private sector’s ability and willingness to step in.

A surprise proposal from business owner Kody Wojtasiak during Monday’s town council meeting could offer between 60 to 70 camping and RV spaces for workforce housing. Additionally, an ordinance to amend Land Development Regulations (LDRs) and exempt apartment buildings from affordable housing standards made it through one of three ordinance readings.

The town council also approved sketch plans for a large hotel on Center Street, which will at least provide housing for its employees, though councilors and the public are not convinced employee housing will be sufficient. The public has heavily criticized the hotel, but councilors have little choice but to approve it given current zoning and development regulations, which the project obeys precisely.

Here’s what went down:

Workforce camping

Over the weekend, Wojtasiak sent a proposal to Mayor Pete Muldoon to create an RV campsite at 1080 South Highway 89. Wojtasiak does not own the land, but said he is in communication with the landowner, who is on board, pending town council approval. Wojtosiak would be the one executing the project, and did not yet wish to release the landowner’s name.

Wojtasiak’s proposed campsite would provide 60 to 70 spaces for RV camping just south of Movie Works. Wojtasiak said he has considered opening up a campsite for tourist use for a long time now, but when he saw that town council was considering workforce camping in downtown Jackson, he realized he had the opportunity to help. Rather than allowing for overnight camping in downtown parking lots, which Wojtasiak says would be a logistical nightmare, he would offer plots of land for a monthly fee. A certain number of spaces—more than half, he said—would be dedicated for workforce housing.   

“There are people in this town that have land available, and can do something like this and make a decent amount of money,” Wojtasiak said. He says that RV campgrounds are ideal because they provide a stable place to stay, and also easily turn a profit. They’re a win-win for the workforce and landowners.

Muldoon was intrigued enough to follow up with Wojtasiak before Monday’s meeting. “[The project] is certainly promising,” he said, “though we have to do our due diligence. It’s great that a member of the community is stepping up and offering to help with our housing crisis.”

The problem is that current zoning regulations do not allow for camping in any zoning district. In order for Wojtasiak’s proposal to work, town council would have to make another amendment to LDRs to allow for camping on private property. This could happen one of two ways, town planning director Tyler Sinclair explained: town council could declare an emergency, and move the amendment forward through an emergency ordinance. Alternatively, if the council wants the ordinance to become permanent law, they could put the ordinance through the usual three readings. Vice Mayor Jim Stanford noted an official, non-emergency ordinance only requires 10 days between the first and third reading to become a law. To move the process along quickly, councilors could hold ordinance readings during specially scheduled meetings, or work them into already scheduled budget and council meetings.

Since the proposal was fresh and Monday’s meeting was its first public introduction, councilors unanimously moved to continue the discussion with Wojtasiak and town staff.

Don Frank, however, was ready to move forward Monday. “It seems like a gift,” he said. “When a private landowner sees a way to meet a public need, it seems like the appropriate response is ‘thank you, how can we help?’”

The council also voted unanimously to continue exploring options for limited overnight parking, which would allow workers who sleep in their cars to do so legally in designated sites. Conversations about car camping inflamed resident Tim Rieser, who asked in public comment if the council has “any idea what the scale of the problem is?” It’s “preposterous,” he said, that workers would have to compete with visitors for camping spots, and that overnight parking would leave people sleeping in the reclined front seat of their Subaru. “That’s how [electeds] want these people to live,” Rieser said. “It really pisses me off.”

Councilors said they happen to share Rieser’s concerns, and want to find a way to ensure camping sites actually work for the workforce. “I don’t want to provide camping for guests,” Morton-Levinson said. “If we’re going to do municipal camping, it has to be for the workforce.”

Another hotel in the Hole

Town councilors unanimously moved to approve a sketch plan and conditional use permit for Crystal Creek Capital’s 99-room hotel, restaurant, bar, retail and employee housing project at Center Street and East Deloney. Although there were concerns that the hotel will require a larger staff than it can house, project leaders assured the council that they are committed to providing high standards of living for both seasonal and full-time employees.

“Living in Jackson, you can’t avoid the challenges associated with housing,” said Crystal Creek Capital president Jim Walter.

Walter noted the sketch plan in front of the council “complies with every requirement in the LDRs.” In fact, it exceeds requirements for employee housing by about 1,500 square feet.

Still, the planning commission’s initial approval of the hotel met public outrage. Morton-Levinson said she has received a handful of emails and public comments from people asking how the council could approve another hotel in the midst of a housing crisis. But given the current development regulations and zoning codes, her hands are tied. “We legally didn’t really have anything [to deny],” she said. “Unless we have a conversation about stopping all development, then that’s the only option.”

Ultimately, councilors were pleased the team of developers was able to present a project that so thoroughly complied with zoning and development regulations. “It’s refreshing to have a developer bring forth a proposal that meets all regulations,” Stanford said. In contrast to recent conversations that have positioned land development regulations as a burden to developers, Stanford said this project is proof that “obviously, regulations work when you follow them.”

Text amendment one step closer

Speaking of burdening LDRs. A text amendment that exempts apartment buildings of 20 units or more from affordable housing standards made it through the first of three ordinance readings with two conditions.

To ensure that a local workforce occupies apartment units, Muldoon proposed amending the maximum square feet per unit, to “keep it livable,” but not luxury. New maximum square foot measurements for all new units are: 450 for studio apartments, 675 for one-bedroom, 975 for two-bedroom, and 1,175 for three-bedroom apartments. Each additional bedroom after the third will not exceed 200 square feet. Staff will also include language for a 10 percent adjustment allowance to those measurements on a case-by-case basis.

Until two weeks ago, the council was divided on the amendment, which would exempt all future apartment buildings of 20 units or more from affordable housing standards, including restaurateur Joe Rice’s 90-unit complex slated for 550 W. Broadway. Rice and his team proposed the amendment to town council in March.

Proponents argued that apartments are “inherently affordable.” But Stanford and Muldoon were not convinced, and retorted that affordable housing standards are the only way to guarantee affordability. A series of compromises, including a five-year sunset clause that allows the council to evaluate the amendment in five years, alleviated some of their concerns.

The new conditions will be presented in the second reading in two weeks, and if there are any discrepancies, the ordinance risks going back to a first reading, or dying altogether. PJH

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