Jackson Hole News & Guide Column – 26 Oct 16
Note: This piece contains the unabridged replies submitted by Jackson Town Council candidates Jessica Sell Chambers, Judd Grossman, Hailey Morton Levinson, and Jim Stanford 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 Town Council.
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?
As much as I support the Comp Plan and its objectives, the vision inaccurately represents this equation as linear. Human inhabitants care about preserving and protecting an ecosystem when they are valued and invested in the community and when their immediate problems such as housing insecurity, childcare, or health issues do not overshadow issues such as climate change. Jackson struggles to ensure a decent quality of life for a large portion of its residents. And, since our fingerprints are already all over this place, we must acknowledge the role of protecting the inhabitants, both with and without voices as a necessary means for protecting our ecosystem. But, yes – of course – if we destroy the environment we destroy ourselves with it.
I try not to feel my way through important questions; the connection between one’s investment in the community and how much one cares for the surrounding environment is backed up by research and evidence. As you stated in your opening remarks you, “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.” I do not know of any location under the circumstances you described, where they, as Terry Tempest Williams said the other night, “put people before profit”. It is my hope given our size, level of education, and self-awareness, we could lead in this area and demonstrate that sustainable profits are linked to sustainable communities and ecosystems.
Jackson Hole is an international scenic and wildlife treasure. We have a responsibility to steward these resources for “future generations”, not just for the benefit of our local community, but also for the benefit of the millions of people from around the world who cherish this place.
The “future generations” part of the statement you quoted from the Comprehensive Plan has important implications. If you read it to mean an ever expanding population of children of locals and their future children that would lead to exponential growth that would destroy our scenic and wildlife resources. I believe we need to head toward a sustainably balanced build out of development that will preserve the character of Jackson Hole from the destructive pressures of overpopulation.
Preserving and protecting our ecosystem is how we will maintain a healthy environment. Our economy is directly impacted by our surrounding ecosystem with many of our businesses and jobs created because of where we are. Our community relies on our surrounding ecosystem for physical and mental wellbeing.
Yes. A healthy environment and access to high-quality public lands have spurred the biggest economic growth in our community’s history over the last 30 years. Regardless, we have a responsibility to protect the ecosystem because of the legacy of conservation we’ve inherited, and the fact that Greater Yellowstone is one of the last and largest intact wild ecosystems on Earth.
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?
Jackson Hole is clearly confined politically, economically, and geographically. Our population cannot grow unchecked especially living the way we currently live. However, there are clear ways we can adjust the way we live but that will require political will and for people to accept a different way of living. There are a lot of unrealistic and contradictory opinions expressed around here; we as a community are going to have to reconcile these conflicting views in order to achieve the vision laid out in the Comp Plan. Another thing Terry Tempest Williams said the other evening is, “We need to learn to speak the language of ‘We’.” We have some very real threats facing our way of life here, such as the effects of climate change. When all of our backyards have been scorched in mega wildfires, ‘not in my backyard’ will have new meaning. One thing that could be very helpful is to make Jackson youth friendly, so we don’t have a ‘brain-drain’. Ultimately, residents need to make up their minds with regard to what they want.
There is an ideal limit. We have probably already passed that point, and unfortunately there is already zoning in place that will add thousands of additional residential units and millions of feet of commercial potential. We need to seek a soft landing at buildout. To protect property rights and public expectations we should use the buildout numbers from the 1994 LDRs as a basis for our future buildout limit. I oppose any expansion of development rights except for deed restricted housing and incentives for open space.
The Comprehensive Plan discusses more or less, a residential doubling of what we have now. We are working on our zoning to reflect that. We are also working on zoning to reflect the vision of keeping open spaces and concentrating development in already developed areas.
The Comp Plan envisions a rough doubling of our population, so that’s one limit. Geography is another constraint, as we are bounded by 97 percent federally managed public land in Teton County. Our road network, itself constrained by geography, is another limiting factor. Every decision regarding land use is seen through the filter of consistency and compliance with the Comp Plan — there is a section in every staff report devoted to that topic.
In the last four years, I’ve made many decisions in favor of preserving our environment over community or economic concerns. The biggest of these was leading the charge, successfully, to rein in commercial growth in the District 2 land development regulations. Another example was opposing special interest groups pushing for a separate, paved pathway along the Moose-Wilson Road; the town ultimately supported GTNP’s decision. One could make the argument that by building more housing in developed areas, as called for in the Comp Plan, we are helping to preserve the area’s ecosystem by reducing traffic, roadkill, the need to build more and wider roads, etc.
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?
These are not either-or situations. When the community-economy-ecosystem triangle is balanced, each element supports each other. Ultimately, sustainability is the best way forward for everyone and everything. I have an artillery of resources both academically and professionally to rely upon as far as policy goes – however, do we really need experts to tell us sustainable practices are the best way forward? Common sense is enough. During a conversation with planning director, Tyler Sinclair, I firmed up my guiding questions that will inform my decision making when I’m on the Council: Will this protect our ecosystem? Is this sustainable? Will this maintain community?
Preserving open space, wildlife habitat and stable neighborhoods is a very high priority for me. In our current overheated economic environment we do not need to be taking measures that stimulate business activity. Our development patterns are out of balance. I’m proposing a Workforce Housing Overlay with significant density bonuses exclusively for deed restricted housing in the walkable urban commercial core. I propose that we waive the parking requirement for these deed restricted units to allow them to be more affordable and to encourage new development to be less car-centric. We should be willing to accept higher density and intensities of mixed use development in the walkable urban commercial core in order to get our workforce housing back in balance while preserving open space, wildlife habitat and stable neighborhoods, and not exacerbating our traffic problems. Human development and economic activity must adapt to the overarching needs of the natural environment of Jackson Hole – not the other way around.
I strive to find the balance and make my decisions based on that. It’s all interrelated and one decision here affects another decision there. I recognize that and try to understand the big picture. I support making decisions based on research, data, and science. Giving resources so that town and county staff can research information for the electeds is important. Relying on the expertise in our community is important too.
I rely on town staff, community planning advocates, journalists and other citizens for information. I read a lot and try to follow what other communities like ours are doing to tackle similar problems.
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?
An organization expresses its priorities through its mission and vision, which is reflected in its policy, which is then reflected in its budget. Further, priorities reflected in policy, may require no line item whatsoever. As for pledging funding that will directly support preserving and protecting the area’s ecosystem, how can anyone make such a pledge? Everything we do is in the spirit of protecting the area’s ecosystem or ought to be; there’s no way to extract this one piece from the rest of what we do in town; and anyone who thinks it can be done is not seeing the big picture. Housing is linked to transportation is linked to conservation is linked to education is linked to the ecosystem, and so on and so forth. I do support wild neighborhoods and ensuring habitat connectivity but that is expressed in other areas of the budget.
The government must live within its means. There is not enough money in the operating budget of the Town to pay for major ecosystem preservation initiatives. The best way for government to protect our ecosystem is through zoning. Town needs to make sure that we aren’t adding any additional development rights except for deed restricted housing and incentives for open space. We need to keep the county as rural as possible and focus new residential development into the walkable commercial urban core. I would support well crafted SPET initiatives that seek to preserve open space and wildlife habitat.
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?
Everything relates to supporting and preserving our area’s ecosystem. For example, I supported working with the Housing Trust and funding $1.65 million for affordable housing at Redmond Hall. By supporting affordable housing and putting that density in an already developed area (this case, town), I am supporting preserving our ecosystem, preserving open spaces. Another example would be supporting alternative transportation initiatives including sidewalks and increased bike routes. By providing alternatives to the car, I am supporting our ecosystem. I will continue to look at how each decision we make relates to the overall goal of preserving and protecting our ecosystem and lead with that in mind.
In this fiscal year, the town will spend $831,000 on planning, the bulk of which is devoted to ensuring compliance and consistency with the Comp Plan. Included in that sum are studies for parking and transportation modeling to help reduce traffic on our roads. Conservatively, we’ve spent more than $2 million on good planning during my tenure on the council. We have created a Flat Creek water district to examine and possibly improve the health of the creek. We are working on regulations for stormwater drainage to reduce pollution and have begun looking at creation of a “blueway” along Flat Creek to restore degraded areas. We passed sweeping changes to our lighting regulations to better preserve the night sky.
In addition, by the end of this fiscal year we will have approved an additional $3 million in public funding for energy efficiency projects. We have achieved a nearly 70 percent increase in energy efficiency at our wastewater treatment plant, which is one of the largest consumers of electricity in the community. We also have the largest solar panel system in the state.
Throughout every level of town government, conserving energy and reducing waste are core values. During my term we have joined Teton County in pursuing a “zero waste” strategy for the town. I can’t calculate the effect these policies have had on protecting and preserving our ecosystem. We are a micro organization facing macro challenges — global overpopulation, climate change, pollution. But we are doing what we can within our sphere to reduce energy consumption, conserve resources and reduce carbon emissions. You are better qualified to put a price tag on that investment than I am.
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..”?
“Boundaries” are non-existent when we’re talking about the environment. It is imperative we partner with people up and downstream from us, but first we must cultivate our own garden. One specific action we can take is to invite the mayors of our bedroom communities to the table to discuss a wide range of issues that straddle boundaries and the protection of our ecosystem; these leaders have made it perfectly clear they want a seat at the table. In general though, Teton County should do everything in our power to lead by example and exchange best practices with our neighbors; it would be wise, in our best interest, and excellent for the ecosystem.
Town can best protect our area’s ecosystem by limiting the expansion of development rights. Overpopulation is putting enormous pressure on our wild lands. We must prevent suburban sprawl in the county that destroys open space and wildlife habitat. The Town must use its leverage as an important stakeholder to work with the Forest, Park, BLM and Refuge to advocate for ecosystem preservation. Specifically, Town should advocate that any expansion of Snow King Mountain Resort be carefully constrained, so that it doesn’t degrade the forest lands to the east and west of the current resort boundary.
Yes. As local elected officials we can work with fellow elected and partners locally, statewide, nationally, and internationally. I serve on the Energy Conservation Works board where we promote reducing our energy consumption and share with other communities such as Lincoln County and sister cities in China what we are doing and how we are making a difference here. I also serve on our Wyoming Association of Municipalities board where I promote and share what we are doing in Jackson across the state.
Yes, I think we need to look beyond our borders and work with colleagues in Teton Valley, Idaho, Lincoln and Fremont counties, Wyo., and even perhaps Gallatin County, Mont., on regional strategies for conserving our ecosystem. One tangible step, as recommended in our Integrated Transportation Plan, is forming a regional transportation authority. We also need to work better with our federal partners at the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on planning for and coping with the effects of climate change. I harbor no delusions, however — it’s hard enough to work across jurisdictions with Teton County, let alone different counties or state lines. I’m open to conversation and suggestions.
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.
Reading your website, it’s not clear what you do professionally. It is clear, however, that you have no experience in government. Why should voters select a novice to play such a key role in running their government?
Like Senator Simpson encouraged a few weeks ago, one should do something in life and then run for elected office and I have. Presently, my profession is that of Household CEO, Domestic Engineer, and Director of Child Development, all the while running a campaign and doing educational consulting jobs, primarily for the Teton County Model United Nations Conference with Interconnections 21. As an elected official though, I’ll get a significant bump in salary. In the past, I have had far less challenging positions: At 25, I was a radio affiliate and project manager for King Biscuit (Flower Hour) Entertainment. At 26, I was a Winston Fellow in France, researching while teaching in two middle schools. At 27, I was a producer for David Alpern’s Newsweek on Air. At 28, my life dramatically shifted course when my mother died and I needed to take care of my 9 and 15 year old brothers. I have since gotten a Master’s Degree in Education and have taught all around the valley and in the state. As for having ‘no’ experience in government: I studied International Affairs/Political Science in New York City; I was educated by and worked closely with diplomats, ambassadors, United Nations Professionals, Non-Governmental Organization staff, policy makers, and experts in many fields. My research and analysis have won awards; and I still author international policy and procedural guides and conduct trainings, albeit for a younger audience. Mostly though, people should vote for this ‘novice’ because I have a low threshold for trying unorthodox measures that have been proven effective. The last thing we need right now is someone who wants to do things the way they’ve always been done.
Through your years of editorializing in Planet JH and elsewhere, you have a reputation as being staunchly anti-government. Why should voters elect someone to government who opposes government?
It is a mistake to consider me “anti-government”. I actually believe quite passionately in the importance of good local government. It is a fundamental institution that protects our rights as individuals and allows us to come together as a community and work together to provide the infrastructure that allows us to prosper and thrive.
I’m concerned that when government overreaches by taking on tasks that aren’t part of the community consensus, or when it wastes precious public funds, or makes arbitrary inconsistent decisions, or uses its power and money to reward cronies or pander for votes it severely damages its credibility and fosters mistrust and cynicism in the community at large.
Our local government is too important to let politicians – whether they are well meaning or self-serving – turn it into a vehicle for their personal ideologies or ambitions. When government controls too much of our economy through taxes and regulations businesses, individuals and special interests calculate that it’s a more efficient use of their resources to spend their time down at Town Hall soliciting favors and handouts rather than being independent, self-sufficient and productive.
Our local government needs to be lean, focused, efficient, and effective, and to have coherent and transparent reasoning for its actions. It needs to operate at the highest levels of integrity to maintain the public’s trust. I will work hard to help our Town have a government that we can all be proud of.
The current town council is viewed by many people to be ineffective. You have been a part of that body for four years. If you are returned to office, why should voters expect anything to change?
I would like to share how we have been effective. We have a unified housing plan for the first time in our community’s history and taking action to provide affordable housing to our community. I have voted for employee housing and affordable housing and am moving projects such as Redmond Hall, START housing, Parks and Rec housing forward. I have voted in favor of alternative transportation. During my time on council we have approved and built many blocks of sidewalks, miles of pathways, improved bicycle routes and improved START routes. We have approved a complete streets plan that will help inform and improve our roads for all users. We have improved public parking, worked to continually maintain our infrastructure, worked through and continue to work on the West Broadway Slide where we now have secured funding and approved a mitigation plan. We continue to provide critical support through personnel and funding to our Fire/EMS and Police Departments. I have voted to provide critical funding to our social service organizations in a time when they are in need due to state funding shortfalls. This doesn’t reach all we have done during my four years. I will continue to lead with an open mind, honesty, and dedication. I have and will continue to commit the time, energy, and thought to our community.
The current town council is viewed by many people to be ineffective. You have been a part of that body for four years. If you are returned to office, why should voters expect anything to change?
I’m going to push back here. This sounds like Trump “Many people are saying …” By what metric? I think I’ve been very effective on a lot of issues. As I mentioned earlier, reining in commercial growth downtown and helping preserve the natural character of Moose-Wilson Road are two big accomplishments. Streaming and archiving video of all town council meetings is another step toward transparency, accountability and citizens’ access to and participation in government. We’ve built 10 or 12 blocks of missing sidewalk segments that I championed. Coming out of a recession, we restored funding for several jobs and some services that had been cut and increased funding for social services. We’ve improved snow removal on roads and sidewalks. In addition, we had to deal with a landslide that could have eaten up a significant chunk of our capital projects budget. Instead, we went to the voters and will be receiving SPET funds to stabilize the slide. We have laid the foundation for housing and transportation initiatives and will go to voters in November for the first change in our local tax structure since the 1980s. If approved, that funding will help the town and county make progress on housing and transportation and better position us to deal with future budgetary challenges.
Do you think the town has been ineffective, say, on housing? You have pointed out that it’s fundamentally a problem we cannot solve. During my tenure we’ve approved nearly $4 million for community housing projects (including $2 million yet to be allocated) and invested more than $1 million in employee housing. We’ve cracked down on illegal short-term rentals by swiftly passing an ordinance that’s as tough as any in the country.