Conservation goals in Jackson Hole collide with a need for worker housing

  • Commuters head from their day jobs in Jackson, Wyoming, over Teton Pass to their homes in rural Idaho. In the worst years for the housing problem, as many as a third of Jackson's workers can't afford to live in town.

    Bradly J. Boner
  • Cory and Amy Hatch strap their 15-month-old daughter, Grace, into her car seat to take her to day care and then commute over Teton Pass to their jobs in Jackson. The Hatches purchased a three-bedroom home on about a half-acre in Victor, Idaho, for a fraction of the cost of a comparable home in Jackson.

    Bradly J. Boner
  • Google, HCN Map
  • An aerial shot of Jackson; South Park, where some affordable housing projects have been proposed, is located out of the frame to the south.

    Bradly J. Boner
  • Tourists stroll around downtown Jackson near the By Nature Gallery, which sells exotic fossils like this 65-million-year-old mosasaurus skull, for sale for a cool $50,000.

    Bradly J. Boner
  • Lawyer Peter Moyer says affordable housing "sounds great," but organized his neighbors on Cheney Lane to press a lawsuit against the Teton County Housing Authority's use of a small parcel across the street from his house.

    Bradly J. Boner
  • Barbecuing in a small neighborhood of modest free-market homes for working folks, not far from homes that sell for more than $1 million.

    Bradly J. Boner
  • A conservation easement on the Walton Ranch protects 1,840 acres of open space around Jackson, Wyoming. Another 20,000-some acres are in easements here.

    Bradly J. Boner
  • Rich Bloom in the Porter Estate area of South Park, where big affordable housing proposals have been beaten back by neighbors and conservationists like Bloom.

    Bradly J. Boner
  • Armond Acri, executive director of Save Historic Jackson Hole, has battled big affordable housing projects in South Park, where he has his home office.

    Bradly J. Boner
  • The peaks of the Teton Range loom over a house in the Solitude subdivision, which has some of the most expensive homes in Jackson, Wyoming.

    Bradly J. Boner
  • Miriam Espejel and her children, Edwin and Quincy, in their Habitat for Humanity house in South Park, on the fringe of Jackson. Espejel worked two jobs and volunteered 500 hours in her quest for an affordable home.

    Bradly J. Boner
 

Jackson, Wyoming

As I roam around this resort town in April to meet conservationists who battle affordable housing projects, I'm struck by a tongue-in-cheek take on the argument in the Jackson Hole Daily. Smack on the front page is a photo of a pair of geese  facing off against two ospreys over possession of a manmade nesting platform. The birds' conflict has been highlighted for several days, and now the news is: Jackson's bird-lovers have erected a second nesting platform near the first, in the hope that the geese and osprey will accept separate but equal facilities. "By mid-morning, the housing crisis had been solved," the Daily observes wryly.

The newspaper's back page advertises real estate for humans: ordinary houses and condos for about $1 million each, vacant rural lots with a view of the surreal Teton crags for more than $2 million each, and a "perfect getaway" house at the best ski hill for about $3 million. And those are bargain prices, compared to the most expensive houses around here.

One bright morning, with fresh snow glaring on the Teton peaks, Rich Bloom is waiting for me in a cafe just off the town square. A gray-haired dynamo with sharp blue eyes, he came to Jackson from California when he was 18 to climb the Grand Teton. He settled here in his late 20s, and, with college training in ecology and environmental ed, he spent 300 weeks as an instructor for the National Outdoor Leadership School, and 20 years with the Teton Science School. Now he makes his living as a financial adviser, specializing in "environmentally responsible investing." When I mention affordable housing, he says, "It's an old story, and it's around us -- constantly."

Nearly everyone here has a personal housing-related saga, and Bloom recites his own: When he moved here 33 years ago, he rented a 200-square-foot cabin that was Science School employee housing. Then he and his wife, Becky, bought an unfinished two-bedroom house across the state line in Idaho, where prices are much lower, and drove the dangerous road over the 8,431-foot Teton Pass -- a 45-minute commute on a good day, and much longer, or completely impossible, during blizzards and avalanches. Eventually, they leveraged the Idaho house into a Jackson condo, and finally, eight years ago, bought an actual house in Jackson.

Other desirable Western towns also struggle with housing, of course, so some of the facts sound familiar: Between one-fifth and one-third of Jackson's workers -- more than a thousand people on average -- commute long distances because they can't afford to live here (the number of commuters fluctuates with economic ebbs and flows). Most live in Idaho and use the Teton Pass road, but some make even longer commutes from distant parts of rural Wyoming. Many other Jackson workers live crammed into small and rundown places. The median price of Jackson homes listed a few months ago was just over $1 million. That's more than 10 times the median household income (a calculation that includes earnings from investments), about 15 times the median income for individuals, and 20 times the average wage for local jobs. Economists agree that anything higher than three times annual income is unaffordable.

Yet Jackson is in a class all its own, because of its environment. This is the gateway to a unique array of wild landscapes: Grand Teton National Park, several other alluring mountain ranges, a great stretch of the Snake River and the sprawling National Elk Refuge. Thousands of elk, along with grizzly bears, wolves, mountain lions, bison and bald eagles, share the valley -- known as Jackson Hole -- with passionate anglers, hunters, wildlife watchers, skiers, kayakers, climbers, mountain bikers and hikers. The town square is famous for its massive arches of stacked-up elk antlers, and moose occasionally wander the streets.

To protect the environment and the community's "character," conservationists and other slow-growth advocates have done more than support vigorous land-use regulations similar to those imposed by other resort towns. They've also battled ambitious efforts to build affordable housing for workers -- "restricted" homes priced far below the free market, managed by well-meaning entities, as well as free-market homes designed to be within reach of the better-paid workers.

Bloom and I climb into his sage-colored Subaru and drive a few minutes to the fiercest battleground -- South Park, a suburban area on the flats just southwest of town. Hundreds of acres in South Park are already covered with homes on small lots -- many of them built decades ago -- and more than 1,000 acres stand vacant, apparently ripe for infill. Over the past 10 years or so, affordable housing advocates, county planners and landowners have attempted three big developments on South Park's vacant land. The proposals varied in detail, but they would've created more than 1,000 new affordable homes in both restricted and free-market units. Neighbors, conservationists and other opponents exerted enough political pressure -- including petitions and a ballot measure -- to kill all three proposals.

"This is the most contentious" area around Jackson, Bloom says, but "I don't see these as battles -- these are discussions with people you know very well." Bloom himself led the rebellion against a 2007 proposal called Teton Meadows Ranch. He lives in Melody Ranch, a South Park neighborhood next to that parcel, and he organized several other neighborhoods into an umbrella group, South Park Neighbors, which helped gather 1,200 signatures on a petition opposing the development. He acknowledges that its vision of 400 restricted affordable homes plus 100 free-market homes on small lots –– all woven in with permanent islands of open space –– would have resembled his own neighborhood. "It's hard to be perfect -- we're all hypocrites one way or another," he says.

Honoring his lethal campaign against the development, the leading local environmental group, the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, gave Bloom a "Hats Off award" in 2008 for his "dedicated efforts to get citizens involved in keeping Jackson Hole wild and beautiful." The pattern holds: Some affordable housing advocates and planners still want to do big South Park projects, but every time, they hit the same opposition. Sometimes they're even hit for proposing small affordable housing projects elsewhere in Jackson Hole. And in fact, most people on both sides do see it as a battle.

"People are here because they want to be here. We have a lot of passion about this place. But it's like high school, with a hell of a lot of money, terribly hormonal, a lot of adrenaline rushing all the time," observes the head of a local think tank, who prefers to remain anonymous. "People can get very impassioned over small things, and affordable housing hits a raw nerve. 'If your vision screws up what I think makes this place great, I'm going to fight you to the death.' "

The environmental champions usually win in Jackson Hole. But despite everybody's good intentions, many of the workers end up paying the price, using whatever currency they can manage.

There are no villains in this tale. Jackson is a high-powered community, with about 21,000 people in the town and suburbs. They've formed more than 200 nonprofit organizations, an incredible number for a community this size, and a few of the nonprofits are focused on the housing problem. So is the government of Teton County, which is more or less synonymous with Jackson, the only incorporated town. And so are employers, developers, landlords. They provide as many decent affordable homes for workers as they can, but it's not enough. The community throws just about anything imaginable at the problem, even sending commuter buses over Teton Pass equipped with state-of-the-art "Insta-Chains" -- when the road is slick, the bus driver flicks a switch and chains automatically wrap the tires.

NewTowncarShare News Classifieds
  • NON-PROFIT MANAGEMENT Become a powerful force in nature. Join The Nature Conservancy and make a tangible and lasting impact in creating a world where both...
  • Join the publisher, editors, writers and staff of NewTowncarShare for the annual Holiday Open House. Refreshments, food, door prizes and merriment. Thursday, December 6,...
  • 5 acres, views, utilities to lot line includes paid water tap, great for passive solar design, covenants and NO HOA. Listed by Beckie at Keller...
  • The Native American Fish and Wildlife Society (NAFWS) is seeking qualified applicants to fill a vacant Executive Director position in Denver, CO. The position serves...
  • The Western Environmental Law Center (WELC) is a nonprofit public interest environmental law firm with a 25-year legacy of success using the power of the...
  • 383 Acres with trails, private road, trees, stream and fabulous views. Earth Sheltered, passive solar home provides 2785 sf of comfort and a "top of...
  • certified, 51 acres, small cottage, outbuildings, equipment and tools. Contact: [email protected]
  • 2bd/2bath green home on 2 acres on the Ojo Caliente River, NM. MLS #101605. Contact [email protected]
  • of mountains, 22+ acres. Close to Arroyo Seco and the Taos Ski Valley, NM. MLS #102585, [email protected]
  • 2br-2ba, acreage. Birders, writers. 1000.
  • 1400 sf of habitable space in a custom-designed eco-home created and completed by a published L.A. architect in 1997-99. Nestled within its own 80-acre mountain...
  • The Wilderness Society is currently recruiting for a Communications Manager for our Northwest Region. This position can be located in Seattle or Oakland. For more...
  • 1912 Orchard House completely rebuilt 2002. 4000 sq ft home and private guest cottage on .53 acres. Reclaimed maple and Doug Fir. Two garages. CathyMooney.com,...
  • with home on one acre in Pocatello, ID. For information and photos visit www.blackrockforgeproperty.com.
  • Sierra Club is looking for a community organizer who can help us protect grizzly bears and other wildlife species in the Northern Rockies region. This...
  • Join HCN and Black Sheep Adventures on an expedition through the national parks and monuments of Utah and Southwest Colorado, September 7 - 15, 2019....
  • Grand Staircase Escalante Partners is hiring a full-time Restoration Program Coordinator based in Escalante, Utah. gsenm.org
  • in Moab, UT start in Spring. Naturalist, River Guides, Camp Cooks, Internships available. Details at cfimoab.org/employment.
  • 25 acre in native grasses. Cedar draw. Year-round spring. At foot of Moscow Mnt, ID, 7 miles from town.
  • Custom-built pumice home, endless views, 20 minutes to Taos Ski Valley, NM. Berkshire Hathaway Home Services Taos Real Estate, 575-758-1924, https://hcne.ws/highdeserthaven