By his estimation, Shawn Hill has attended an average of ten public meetings per month since being hired as the executive director of Valley Advocates for Responsible Development in November of 2013.
That totals around 940 meetings about land use and planning issues, some of which stretched into the early hours of the next day. “It certainly feels like 940 meetings, I’ll tell you that,” he said.
Hill is leaving VARD to become the executive director of Future West, a community planning nonprofit in Bozeman. He described it as a professional opportunity that he couldn’t pass up. However, he’s not leaving the valley and he isn’t turning his back on the local issues that VARD has always been involved with.
“I can’t stay away,” he said about government meetings. “I’m looking forward to detaching somewhat, but is there anyone who lives here and isn’t passionate about this place? I’ll always be involved in some way.”
Hill came to VARD after years of experience as a planner in resort towns like Jackson and Park City, which gave him insight into the possible pitfalls in Teton Valley’s future.
“I sometimes come off as a bit impatient, after working in places that are a generation ahead of Teton Valley in terms of community development,” he said. “I’m plagued by Cassandra syndrome—it requires some finesse to convince this community not to make the same mistakes as its peers.”
One of those issues that keeps him up at night is affordable housing. “It becomes exponentially more difficult to provide affordable housing as a community develops,” he said. “The cost grows in leaps and bounds. Teton Valley has an advantageous opportunity to develop now because it’s not quite as expensive as those other places yet. Solid investment now will position us better later.”
The organization is sometimes painted as a villain by people who don’t agree with its mission.
“That just comes with the territory,” Hill said. “It’s always been a working condition at VARD, but it doesn’t figure into our daily operation. We’re too happy, too busy, and we’re a very technically resourced organization. We have our heads buried in policy, regulations, research documents—we’re not really paying attention to the din because there is so much technical rigor we have to bring to the public discourse.”
Hill has worked on many land use and community development projects during his time as director, but one that stands out to him is the recent acquisition of the Maytag property by the US Forest Service.
“We were over the moon about that,” he said. “The potential for massive development in Horseshoe Canyon was always a source of heartburn for us.”
In 2018 VARD helped the county remedy a zoning error, thereby eliminating significant development potential on the Maytag property, then encouraged conservation of the property through public/private partnerships.
“I don’t think it’s even hit us yet,” Hill said. “There’s never time to pause and celebrate. But I go up there some weekends, and it’s quiet, I can hike around, the views are beautiful. Those moments are where this accomplishment really sinks in.”
VARD attorney Anna Trentadue, who has been with the nonprofit since 2007, said Hill is like a brother to her. “I will miss him dearly. He always finds chances to get involved in the community.”
One example of that involvement was a 2016 project to find a permanent home for the horse rescue nonprofit HAPI Trails while helping the Saddleback Vistas homeowners association revitalize its equestrian facilities.
“Shawn did the matchmaking on that and I did the legal legwork,” Trentadue said. “He’s so good at finding opportunities like that.”
Hill in turn expressed gratitude for his coworkers, as well as for VARD’s committed, supportive board.
“We’ve enjoyed tremendous stability and longevity, I think because we have such a strong foundation and our work is so important,” he said. “VARD has a happy warrior culture. It feels like we’re fighting the good fight and that’s a boundless source of motivation.”