Jackson Hole News&Guide Column – 2 Nov 16
(Please note that an earlier version of this piece mistakenly used the wrong draft of answers supplied by candidate Nikki Gill. This version has her intended answers.)
Note: This piece contains the unabridged replies submitted by Teton County Commission candidates Trey Davis, Greg Epstein, Nikki Gill, and Natalia Macker to questions posed in October, 2016.
The Industrial Revolution began in England in the 1760s. In the ensuing 250 years, I know of no city, state, or region that has developed an industrial or post-industrial economy while also maintaining the basic health and integrity of its surrounding environment.
There is perhaps one exception to this blanket statement: Jackson Hole, which enjoys both a highly-advanced economy and a relatively healthy ecosystem. This exceptionalism is captured in the Vision Statement of the Jackson/Teton County Comprehensive Plan: “Preserve and protect the area’s ecosystem in order to ensure a healthy environment, community and economy for current and future generations.”
Parsing the Vision Statement, it has two components. The first is the vision itself: “Preserve and protect the area’s ecosystem…” The second is the rationale for preserving and protecting the ecosystem: “…in order to ensure a healthy environment, community and economy for current and future generations.”
The past 250 years of history suggest it will be difficult for Jackson Hole to achieve the Comp Plan’s Vision, for do so will require us to blaze a new approach toward how a community interacts with the ecosystem in which it lies. This challenge, and my sense that the environment has received little attention in this year’s campaigns for local office, underlies a series of questions I posed to all of the candidates for Mayor, Town, Council, and County Commission. Today’s column features replies from the candidates for County Commission.
Do you believe that preserving and protecting the area’s ecosystem is the foundation of having “…a healthy environment, community, and economy for current and future generations?” Why do you feel this way?
The beauty of Teton county is what brought my family here and continues to bring others to see the beauty of this place where we live and are raising our family.
I was born and raised in Jackson Hole. I feel very accountable towards preserving and protecting the wild and natural resources that make this place unlike any other on the planet. It is imperative that we protect the air, water, land and wildlife to ensure the health and well-being of our community and surrounding ecosystem. This will be the guiding principal for any decisions I make as a Teton County Commissioner.
In my opinion, the culture of conservation starts with people who have a long-term stake in Teton County. In order for people to feel like they belong, they need stable housing. Once people picture themselves staying in the valley for the long haul, they start to invest in a life here. At this point, people then start to become community stakeholders and share outdoor experiences with family and friends. Once connected to the value of the outdoors, people tend to become stewards of conservation, but it all starts with stable housing. Recently Commissioner Mark Newcomb wrote an article (http://mark-newcomb.com/to-house-or-not-to-house/)stating that publically funded housing will control growth in Teton County more effectively than the free market, and I believe this to be true. With the government involved in affordable housing site locations, we as a community can adhere to the Comp Plan’s vision of complete neighborhoods and “Town as Heart” more effectively than market forces. As Newcomb mentions in his article, by using the above strategies, we can keep growth out of the critical wildlife habitat and open spaces that distinguish our valley’s character and protect the surrounding environment while creating stable housing solutions for our middle class.
To reduce wildlife and automobile interactions and general air and noise pollution, I would look to reducing our cultural dependency of single occupancy vehicle trips throughout the county. Using the newly created Integrated Transportation Plan (ITP), I would hire an ITP coordinator and/ or create a county-wide/ town transportation authority that would unite all local transportation services and infrastructure projects under one roof e.g., START, pathways, complete streets and bike share. Initially, I would like to see this department work to expand START service and schedules county-wide and regionally, reduce speed limits on highways and educate drivers about wildlife accidents before collaborating with WYDOT to permanently expand our highway system. Once more pavement is laid, there is no going back and these decisions will forever affect the character, ecology and quality of life for all who inhabit the valley (wild and human).
Finally we need to fund these solutions. I support the Community Priorities Local Option 1% Sales Tax that is currently on the General Election Ballot. With state budget cuts continuing to come down the pipeline, Jackson Hole needs to take hold of its fiscal future by leveraging the four million annual visitors who pay for two-thirds of our general revenue sales tax. In my opinion, the only way to efficiently allow the government to focus on community priorities, make dynamic decisions and create solutions regarding transportation and housing, is to have a constant revenue stream provided by this proposed sales tax. By not passing this tax, our community stands to suffer a decreased quality of life by not having the proper funding for conservation, health, safety and welfare services we have come to expect.
I absolutely believe that! Stewardship is more than just a word for me; it’s something I practice daily. It’s an ethic. Growing up in agriculture, environmental stewardship becomes part of ones DNA. Our ranch is home to elk, bald eagles, moose, deer, fish, and the list goes on. That environmental stewardship ethic will guide me every day as a commissioner.
However, while it’s most certainly a key aspect of the comprehensive plan there are other components to consider such as; affordable housing, private property rights, and community character. The mass exodus of our middle class and working families due to lack of housing must be decisively addressed. Balancing the priorities above can be all be thoughtfully achieved. I am committed to finding that balance.
I grew up here and have a deep connection to this land and place. Preserving the natural cycle of life here will always be important to me. Part and parcel of that will be protecting against the loss of the middle class and working families who I believe represent the core of our community. People move to Jackson for our world class skiing, fishing, and climbing but they stay because of the people. If we don’t take steps to keep our workforce local the character that makes Jackson so special will be a thing of the past.
Ultimately, the most concise way of answering is that we will only ruin this place – or any place – once. The comp plan vision recognizes that the biggest challenge facing humans and all other species is coexistence. As we strive to find the balance of coexistence with each other, with wildlife, and with the natural world, we need to maintain our compassion, responsibility, and ingenuity. Protecting our environment is the right thing to do across the board, and we have the opportunity to be an example of how you can preserve and protect the ecosystem and have a thriving economy.
2a) Is there a limit to Jackson Hole’s growth? If so, what is it? If not, what can local government do to ensure that additional development does not compromise the Comp Plan’s vision of preserving and protecting the area’s ecosystem?
There is a limit to Jackson Hole’s growth. Local government through smart growth initiatives, zoning and balance with Town as Heart will limit growth while allowing some growth in outlying areas. Additionally initiatives such as the Open Space Resources Resolution of Teton County has the specific purpose to evaluate, acquire and steward open space resource property in Teton County and to accept open space easements on behalf of the citizens of Teton County and the Town. There are also areas established by Div. 7.3 of the County Land Development Regulations, and I look forward to hearing the proposals as they are identified. Next year, a wildlife crossing study is also set for completion and I look forward to considering some areas identified for such crossings.
Fortunately and unfortunately, Jackson Hole is a victim of its own success. With our attractive location, access to wild and natural resources and a world-renowned name brand, our town has become used to big city amenities with a small town feel. This does not come without serious growing pains. By having over four million yearly visitors, many entrepreneurs, small businesses and large corporations have made this valley home as an attempt to carve out their piece of the pie. But at whose expense? The obvious answer is the ecosystem and wildlife, but the citizens of Teton County pay as well. When considering growth, to what are we referring; yearly visitors, year round population or structural build out? We then need to ask, which of these is the most impactful?
In my opinion, the current principal cause of growth in Teton County is large scale commercial development. These businesses typically require many employees and create a huge demand on community resources. While trying not to stifle business, I believe through our land development regulations we can stabilize year round population by examining the types and requirements of commercial projects we permit in our county. Businesses that want to be successful should come with a holistic civic and environmental approach. If they cannot fulfill this collective stewardship toward our community and surrounding ecosystem, then perhaps Jackson Hole is not the place to do business.
We’re so fortunate that 97% of our valley is public land and by default limits the amount of sprawl potential. Currently, the vast majority of our privately owned, rural open spaces are zoned one house per 35 acres. As I have said before, private property rights and environmental stewardship are not mutually exclusive. As a Commissioner, I will work every day to ensure that balance is achieved.
I will focus on creating more effective zoning that enables us to build affordable housing. Protecting both wildlife and open space will be a priority of mine. The best ways to protect open spaces in perpetuity is through incentives and land conservation easements – a tool I wholeheartedly support.
The most obvious constraint on our growth is available land. Moreover, our community has put self-imposed limits on that growth through the Comp Plan, and when the County adopted the new rural LDRs, we removed some growth potential. Second is the cost of everything – including real property but also the general cost of living. Third is probably our infrastructure. Local government needs to continue to stay true to our vision with our land development regulations – especially in terms of impact on the most sensitive areas. Additionally, we need to be proactive with infrastructure needs so we don’t unintentionally degrade our resources. There are circumstances out of our control affecting our community, and we can’t stick our head in the sand. A great step forward with this is our Integrated Transportation Plan.
2b) If you are elected, some decisions you face may pit preserving and protecting the area’s environment against supporting the community or economy (e.g., against developing more housing or commercial space). In such cases, how will you decide what to do? What sources of information will you rely upon?
Whether or not one likes the amount of growth that has been allowed, we need to build rentals to house the people necessary to staff this growth. We also need to be more aware of the impacts, pressures and effects that each development has on our environment, including our waterways and water sources. Collaborating and educating with environmental groups and staff will assist in decision making and balancing interests. I also believe in seeking incentives and partnerships that respect property rights and permanently protect from future development valuable open space for wildlife and scenic viewsheds. Sources such as studies on wildlife movement corridors, scenic viewsheds and wildlife bridges will assist in this endeavor, as will the Integrated Transportation Plan. Additionally, tools set forth in Principal 1.4 of the Jackson/Teton Comprehensive Plan will assist in this endeavor.
With the Comp Plan as our guide and a complete and current set of land development regulations (LDR’s) I believe that I will have the tools to make workable decisions for Jackson Hole. In saying this, one of my top priorities will be to complete the LDR’s so that the local government officials have legal validation for our decisions. If we choose not to complete the LDR’s in a timely manner, the current Comp Plan could be susceptible to legal scrutiny, potentially gutting the initial intent of our vision of preserving and protecting the area’s ecosystem in order to ensure a healthy environment, community and economy for current and future generations.
I don’t believe in one size fits all, across the board decision making. No proposal and no piece of property is identical. Therefore I will analyze each proposal based on it’s merits. I will carefully consider all the pros and cons as they affect our community character and surrounding ecosystem. Our Comprehensive Plan does a nice job of addressing the amount, location and types of development appropriate for various locations in the community. All goals cannot be achieved in all locations. That’s why the community identified areas where different goals will be given different priorities. I believe I am blessed to live in a community with so much passion and the depth of expertise we have. I value input from both the community, staff and technical experts – that is the best way a Commissioner can make informed decisions.
Our path forward is about finding balance. The Comp Plan undoubtedly contains some contradictions and we need to balance the various goals as they relate to any specific decision. Each decision is about the merits of that project or decision point, but also about how that fits into the whole. However, this doesn’t mean that we do nothing and get stuck. Ultimately, some measure of adaptability will get us better, more effective results. It is my goal as an elected official to represent everyone. I am proud of my track record of considering all sides and for specifically reaching out to people that have different experience and opinions from me. I’ve earned respect from a broad spectrum of people in our community for doing my research and making informed, balanced decisions.
3a is for candidates who have not held office; 3b is for candidates currently in office. Both are based on the fact that an organization expresses its priorities through its budget.
3a) When in office, how much funding do you pledge to vote for that will directly support the Comp Plan’s vision; i.e. that will directly support preserving and protecting the area’s ecosystem? What do you want that money to be used for?
I cannot pledge a certain amount as I am not in office and decisions are made as a collective body and not by one person. I will, however, support funding to study and/or assess the effects development may have on the surrounding wildlife, waterways and water quality, and to hold people/corporations accountable for preserving and protecting the area’s ecosystem (which includes enforcement efforts).
Housing and transportation are the two most important issues facing conservation and the well-being of our community and they both deserve serious attention. With state budget cuts continuing to come down the pipeline, Jackson Hole needs to take hold of its fiscal future by leveraging the four million annual visitors who pay for nearly two-thirds of our local general revenue sales tax every year. I support the 1% local option sales tax on the November 8th ballot and would like to pledge an average of ~$12 million per year over the next four years towards housing and transportation solutions.
In my opinion, the only way to efficiently allow the government to focus effectively on our Comp Plan’s vision, make dynamic decisions and create solutions regarding transportation and housing is to have this steady revenue stream. If the 1% local option fails, our community stands to suffer a decreased quality of life for all inhabitants by not having the proper funding for the surrounding ecosystem, health, safety and welfare services we have come to expect.
To say definitively how much and which projects I will pledge valuable taxpayer dollars to, without taking every community need into consideration, would be irresponsible of me. When evaluating budget proposals, I will look at two things: Can we afford it? Will it help? In implementing the Comp. Plan, I will apply that test. I want to be clear, I am committed to bringing the LDR update to a timely conclusion – the Community deserves that. The Comp. Plan lists a lot of aspirations – that will take time for the Community to be able to fund.
I also support empowering, educating, and enabling large landowners to continue to steward land that they’ve done such a great job of protecting for over 100 years. That can be done for free.
3b) During your time in office so far, how much funding have you voted for that directly supported the Comp Plan’s vision; i.e., that directly supported preserving and protecting the area’s ecosystem? What was that money used for? If you are returned to office, how much funding do you pledge to vote for that will directly support the Comp Plan’s vision? What do you want that money to be used for?
In 2012, we adopted the comp plan but our community was still recovering from the Great Recession. Despite that, the County remained focus on implementing the Comp Plan, which included spending money on affordable housing and other Comp Plan goals. Since the Comp Plan was adopted the County has taken a systematic approach to implementation. Essentially just about everything we do in government is related to the Comp Plan’s vision. This is evidenced in everything from our staff reports to our discussion to how we make efforts to lead by example. Local government is also charged with many other tasks that are not as directly related but that support the health, safety, and welfare of our residents. As envisioned by the Comp Plan, each year we create a work plan and provide the funding for studies/staff/etc needed to accomplish that year’s goals. A few highlights from this year are the Wildlife Crossings Master Plan ($100,000), Focal Species Habitat Study ($58,430) (to update our natural resource regulations), the Wyoming Public Lands Initiative (required funding still being determined), and a transportation coordinator consultant ($50,000). In this fiscal year, $2.7 million will be spent on Affordable Housing from the general fund.
Other activity from this year that represents progress for multi year projects include: Trash Transfer Facility, which is protecting our groundwater; a sewer line south of town that especially supports light industry and helps ensure we have services available locally; the pathway from Jackson to Wilson and the completion of the South Park Loop Pathway. The County also funds START and housing projects as well as Parks & Recreation and the Planning & Building Dept. Coming up we will have the opportunity to discuss funding septic mapping as well as continuing to fund the planning efforts surrounding rewriting the land development regulations to align with the Comp Plan.
I believe our entire budget ($40 million in the general fund budget this year) is in support of the Comp Plan vision, so will continue to work with other elected officials and the County staff to prioritize how best to make progress each year. This includes the immediate year’s budget but also our long-term capital improvement plan and other elements of infrastructure and maintenance planning. I will continue to support the County pursuing decision-making that is grounded in science.
The Comp Plan’s vision clearly focuses on “…the area’s ecosystem…”, which extends well beyond local political boundaries. Within that ecosystem, Teton County and Jackson are by far the wealthiest jurisdictions. Given this, should Teton County, Wyoming and the Town of Jackson take steps outside Teton County’s borders to “preserve and protect the area’s ecosystem…”? If your answer is “yes,” then what steps should our local governments be taking? If your answer is “no,” then how will the town and county be able to meet the Comp Plan’s Vision of helping “preserve and protect the area’s ecosystem..”?
Yes, I believe that Teton County, Wyoming and the Town of Jackson should take steps outside of Teton County’s borders to “preserve and protect the area’s ecosystem.” Teton County Commissioners have no authority outside of the county borders. However, collaboration will be necessary to work with environmental groups and non-profits to assist with any effects we are having on areas inside and outside of our County.
To many people, Jackson Hole is a household brand, but for those who reside here, it is a special place that deserves accountable stewards to help guide its future. As one of the primary communities within the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, I do believe that it is our responsibility to speak and act in regard to the wild and natural resources that surround our valley. As stewards to these lands and the wildlife that inhabits it, our community needs to collaborate locally, statewide and federally to protect this wild place. Through local government and non-profits, we can raise money, awareness and craft land use policy in attempt to offset the degradation of our regional ecosystem. In addition, local officials can work with state and federal experts and officials on solutions to protect our local and regional conservation interests. As individuals in Teton County, if we want to continue to have a robust ecosystem surrounding our home, collectively we will all need to leave some self interest at the door and advocate for the health and well-being of the region.
While we may be the wealthiest jurisdiction we are still struggling to meet the needs of our own community. Before we exhaust our resources outside our own political boundaries we need to buckle down and take care of own residents. Our Commission is already partnering with our neighboring jurisdictions in Teton County Idaho and Lincoln County Wyoming. I am firmly committed to not only continuing but enhancing those relationships. Teton County Idaho is doing some great work that is supportive of our Plan’s regional aspirations. As a commissioner, I would support and encourage expanding our collaborative efforts with our neighboring jurisdictions.
Our best efforts to support the ecosystem beyond our jurisdictional borders are through our partnerships with other government bodies, land managers, agencies, and non-profits. I personally make an effort to have open communication and collaborative relationships with our partners. The County holds regular interagency meetings to bring together the land management stakeholders to discuss current issues and facilitate communication and collaboration. When appropriate, the County serves as a cooperating partner on various land management processes, and I want to ensure that we continue to bring stakeholders to the table in our own decision-making. I supported Teton County undertaking the Wyoming Public Lands Initiative to join with other counties in the state in looking at our Wilderness Study Areas and making recommendations for the future of those areas.
As is true in every election, there is a lot of grumbling about candidates. Rather than let those criticisms fester, I also asked each candidate to respond to the most significant concern I have heard about him or her.
You own the Sweetwater Restaurant, but have no experience in government. In the same way you wouldn’t hire a novice to manage your restaurant, why should voters select a novice to run their government?
I am not a novice in a leadership role. I have experience with and was responsible for many different sized budgets, including a $40 million dollar food & beverage budget for a 5-star corporation. I have experience managing 150 employees, including chefs and professional’s with huge ego’s and had to make 5-star decisions on the fly with little direction or notice. This experience included working daily with managers to make sure each employee and guest had a great experience. I have also served on the Board of Directors of organizations such as Trout Unlimited and am involved in several non-profit organizations in Teton County. Similarly, as a County Commissioner I will need to be fiscally responsible, be able to work with numerous staff members, elected officials, members of the public and non-profit entities, all with important issues, varying opinions and ego’s as well. My life experiences and professional experiences will add great value and perspective to a citizen board such as the County Commission, as will my work ethic, accountability, grit and decision-making abilities. I look forward to being a strong, decisive and straightforward voice for Teton County and to work toward common-sense solutions.
You are Head of Physical Production at Teton Gravity Research. In the same way the owners of TGR wouldn’t hire a novice to take your place if you left your job, why should voters select a novice to run their government?
With a 45 year history in Jackson Hole and a 4 year term on the Friends of Pathways board I have the experience and peoples’ trust regarding our community far beyond the novice level. Good government is not just about time served, but about integrity, fiscal responsibility and making the hard decisions based on the needs of your constituents.
Your family is one of the largest owners of undeveloped land in Teton County. Therefore, nearly any governmental decision about land use has at least indirect financial implications for your family.
Given this, will you recuse yourself from any decision about land use? If “no,” why not? If “some,” what criteria will you use to decide recusal? If “yes,” you will likely have to recuse yourself from a lot of important decisions. How will that affect the commission’s effectiveness?
First off, I think my family’s longstanding stewardship and history in this valley is my greatest assets as a candidate for public service. When it comes to issues such as conservation, community character, and wildlife protection – I’m a candidate who doesn’t just talk the talk, I’m the only candidate in this race who has walked the walk.
I would, as others before me have, rely on the county’s definition of Conflict of Interest to guide me in such circumstances. I understand and will respect the distinction between participating in decisions that directly affect my family versus decisions that broadly impact landowners in general throughout the valley. I have always respected the way that Hank Phibbs, Andy Schwartz, Ruthann Petroff, Leland Christensen, Mark Barron, Keith Gingery, etc. have demonstrated knowing where that line was. I will simply follow the exemplary precedent set by those who served before me. Should a conflict arise, I will recuse.
I think it is important to note; I think my background in agriculture and my passion for local sourcing of food uniquely equips me to understand how to craft regulation so that it encourages large land owners to help us achieve our community goals of maintaining iconic open spaces, ensuring abundant wildlife and continuing the stewardship of agriculture and western character for future generations. My family and I are committed to preserving Jackson’s past and strengthening Jackson’s future.
The current county commission is viewed by many people to be ineffective. You are the lone incumbent running for re-election to this board. If you are returned to office, why should voters expect anything to change?
The County has been proactively working to meet the needs of our community. I have a strong drive for action, and that has been evidenced in my record. I’m pleased to share some of our progress the County has made since I’ve been on the board:
- We have systematically continued connecting our pathways (Jackson/Wilson and South Park this year)
- We have seen 44 families move into the Grove phase 1 & 2, a project which finished early and under budget.
- We have added new commuter routes to our START service
- Adopted new Rural Land Development Regulations to accomplish the goals of the comp plan
- Funded the renovation of the Parks & Rec Park shop plus 21 units of housing to be built with it for seasonal employees (this project is in process)
- We are in the midst of a renovation of the Recycling Center which will better support our Zero Waste Initiative (and we are the only County in the state with such an initiative)
- After completing a compensation study, we made cost of living adjustments within the County to ensure our employees are fairly compensated
- We are in the midst of completing upgrades and renovations at the Trash Transfer Facility, which includes closing the landfill, so we can ensure our groundwater is protected.
- We reorganized the management structure at the County to make it more efficient.
- We are continuing to rewrite and update our Land Development Regulations, including looking at housing mitigation rates in January.
- We have continued to expand our energy mitigation practices, and funded Energy Conservation Works, to help our residents and businesses improve our energy efficiency
- We adopted the Integrated Transportation Plan & the Housing Action Plan – both in partnership with the Town of Jackson, and we are now implementing those, which includes the creation of a new housing structure.
- We have a new boat take out at South Park & continued our implementation of the Snake River Management Plan – the only one of its kind in the state and which is going well.
- And I could keep going!
If there is a perception that the county commission is ineffective, that illuminates for me that we need to do a better job communicating our actions and accomplishments to the public we serve. I am committed to keeping the County focused on action and have the skills and relationships to do so.