THE BUZZ: King Gets Close

By on July 12, 2017

Plans that will bring major changes to the town hill move toward reality.

JACKSON HOLE, WY – At long last, Snow King will soon be able to inch forward with its phase 2 development plan, under a whole lot of conditions. The agreement Snow King representatives came to with Jackson Town Council at Monday’s meeting is complex, but affords some momentum.

The tentative development plan includes a new gondola that will replace a 40-year-old chairlift, a restaurant, and expansions to Bridger Teton National Forest land. Such expansion, however, requires Forest Service approval. For the past year, Snow King has sought town council approval, in the form of a letter to USFS, to move forward with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process. But some community members argued that before Snow King began the NEPA process, it should first amend its 17-year-old Base Master Plan.

Snow King’s phase two master plan has been drafted and in the works since 2014, but the road has been rocky. At Monday’s meeting, Snow King board of directors member Jeff Golightly walked councilors through the journey so far: Snow King reps asked for the letter to USFS a year ago, and the town asked them to do public outreach. Snow King “happily complied,” and conducted “extensive outreach” in the form of open houses and community information sessions.

They returned to the council in June to ask for the letter again, but this time community members showed an interest in Snow King first amending the master plan or at least amending it concurrently with the NEPA process. 

Updating the master plan, some argued, would give the public more of a say in Snow King’s future.

“Each step in the planning process must be clear and involve public comment,” Dawn Webster, operations manager at Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, said. “Promises made, promises kept. NEPA is swift once it’s begun. [The Alliance] ask[s] that you take this seriously, perhaps slow down, and make sure it’s done right.”

“We have a non-functional master plan,” Councilman Jim Stanford said, “not just to the detriment of the community, but to the detriment of the ski area. Until we fix that, we’re going to be stuck here. We’re gonna keep piecemealing it.”

Golightly recognized the community’s desire to evaluate the master plan in its entirety before moving forward with ad-hoc development additions. “We heard from the community that there’s this desire for us to revisit the base area plan concurrently with the mountain plan. We want to demonstrate our plan to do exactly that.”

The motions made Monday night allow Snow King to do both—sort of. Town councilors will sign a letter to USFS allowing Snow King to start the NEPA process, but only after entering into a “Memorandum of Understanding” with the town “outlining the intent, schedule, expectations and cost sharing of updates to the Snow King Resort Master Plan.” So, they’ll sign the letter, but they’ll also open up the conversation about amending parts of the master plan.

“It’s a joint planning process with the Forest Service so people can be talking about uphill improvements to the base area, which falls more into our regulatory realm,” Stanford explained. 

The final decision breaks Snow King development updates into phases. In the first, Snow King will enter into a community discussion about the Snow King Resort Master Plan for all areas except sub-areas one and two, update the plan based on existing conditions, and enter into the NEPA review. Stanford added an amendment that would require Snow King to revisit chapters seven and 12 in the master plan, which outline housing and “community benefits.”

Under the agreement, any new construction on Forest Service land cannot begin until after phase one master plan updates are complete. Phase one updates must begin no later than December 31.

“It’s a first step,” Stanford said at Monday’s meeting. “We’re at least beginning to discuss it concurrently.”

The process, Stanford later told PJH, is going to take some time. “It’s not everything I sought, and it’s not everything Snow King sought.”

But it’s a compromise. It allows the NEPA process to begin concurrently with a community-wide discussion about parts of the master plan.

The motion to approve this process carried three-to-two. Councilors Don Frank and Hailey Morton-Levinson opposed it, arguing that Stanford’s amendment distracted from Snow King’s immediate goals. “I want to see those improvements,” Morton-Levinson said. “I think a gondola or a new lift is appropriate … To tie that up with other elements of the master plan, I worry we won’t give those elements the time they deserve to be discussed, and also won’t see the improvements.”

Evolving community needs

Councilors then voted against a second phase of amendments to the master plan for sub-areas one and two that could only begin after phase one amendments were complete. Councilor Bob Lenz argued that requiring Snow King to solidify a plan for sub-area two, which includes the gravel parking lot below the ice rink, is premature and unfair. “You have a piece of property, and absolutely no idea what you want to do with it, and we’re saying in the next two years they have to come up with a plan? That doesn’t make sense to me,” he said. “Let sleeping tigers lie.”

Golightly said Snow King did, in fact, have a plan for sub-area two: to leave it as it is. “Allow it to be parked on for free at the rink, for people to play put-put, get lost in a maze,” he said. “That is our plan for it.”

Asking Snow King to re-evaluate that section of the master plan right now, Golightly argued, risks binding it to a plan that doesn’t fit evolving community needs. “You wouldn’t hire an architect to design a house with no intention to break ground for a decade,” he said.

But the lot in question has about 250,000 square feet of development rights attached to it that have never been realized. Muldoon questioned how he would explain to his constituents that they would update part of an outdated master plan, but “won’t update the biggest, most important part?”

They’re going to have to take Snow King’s word that they won’t develop on that lot for “the better part of a decade,” Golightly said. Besides, any new developments on that land would need council approval anyway, which would trigger a new conversation about the plan.

A number of concerned citizens shared Muldoon’s concerns with separating the master plan revision agenda. Leaving sub-area two, Snow King’s “cornerstone parcel,” out of the equation, is “like ordering a banana split without the banana—it just doesn’t work,” Skye Schell, Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance civic engagement director, wrote in an email to the council. “We do not believe that yet another piecemeal change is in the best interest of our community.”

But councilman Don Frank agreed with Lenz. Expecting Snow King to know what to do with that lot, he said, is “unreasonable.”

“Change is the only constant,” Frank said.  Frank, Lenz and Morton-Levinson outnumbered Muldoon and Stanford in a vote against any phase two updates, for now.

In a rather uncharacteristic move, town manager Bob McLaurin spoke up in favor of Snow King’s development plan before the second vote was taken. “Call it an amusement park, call it a carnival, but we have an operator trying to keep the mountain running. I feel like I have to say that,” McLaurin said. “I was at the negotiating table when the resort was hours away from turning the lifts off.”

The options in front of the council, he said, allowed for critical progress. “It’s not perfect from either perspective, but it’s a step forward.”

Finally, town councilors unanimously moved to draft a letter to USFS agreeing to be a cooperating agency in the NEPA review process, pending the aforementioned Memorandum of Understanding and potential master plan updates. As a cooperating agency, the town will participate in conversations with USFS about any updates the Forest Service approves or recommends.

An absent or confused citizenry?

While Golightly acknowledged the value of community input in shaping these discussions, Frank suggested perhaps the community at large is less concerned, or engaged than some would like councilors to believe. If constituents wanted to contribute to the discussion, Frank argued, they have had ample opportunity to do so. 

“I’ve listened to every bit of public comment, read every item emailed to me. They’re very thoughtful and constructive comments.” But, Frank said, “there are 9,456 citizens in the town of Jackson. I’ve seen less than 50 pieces of communication on this item, spread over three meetings. That contradicts the suggestion that they haven’t had the opportunity to speak. Those who wanted to speak, did. The rest are currently mute.”

That may be true, Muldoon said, but citizens are not entirely to blame. “It’s a very complicated and complex situation. I’m still concerned people do not fully understand it.” PJH

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