Process will restart when public can meet safely
Teton County Commissioner Bob Heneage ran for election in 2018 on a platform of finally getting the county’s land development code updated, a project that has been in the works off and on since 2012. Just when he and the steering committee were preparing to gather extensive public input on a first draft of the new code, coronavirus put everything on hold.
“It sucks,” Heneage said frankly.
Aside from being his top priority in office, Heneage pointed out that having a land use code that fits the county’s current comprehensive plan, adopted in 2012, is required by state statute. Teton County has been out of compliance for almost a decade. The most recent attempt to update the code started last spring when the county hired the firm Logan Simpson to oversee the rewrite and did an extensive code audit through the summer that involved community stakeholders and members of the public.
“We were at a major junction and thought we were approaching a rough draft,” Heneage said. On March 5, he gave a code presentation to the Teton Regional Economic Coalition, the first of what was supposed to be a series of nearly two dozen presentations. He had a meeting planned with the Rotary Club when suddenly the county shut down with the news that coronavirus had reached Teton Valley.
There was no viable way to involve the community in the update process during a global pandemic, Heneage said. He and Chris Larson, the chairman of the Teton County Planning & Zoning Commission and a steering committee member, felt strongly that trying to force the process onto an online platform disenfranchised many, while large in-person meetings were out of the questions because of safety concerns.
“Public input is where the rubber meets the road,” Heneage said. “Being at such a sensitive point in the process, to do it in a half-assed way was not going to be satisfactory.”
Logan Simpson was scheduled to produce the first draft of a code by the end of March, which Heneage admitted was a very ambitious timeline. Now the firm has had more time to polish the product before the steering committee reviews and edits the draft. Then the public will be invited to several open houses to take a swing at it, although when that will happen is anyone’s guess.
While they haven’t yet seen the draft, Larson and Heneage are certain it will be shorter, simpler, and more accessible than the county’s 30-year-old code.
One foundational change that Heneage said will alter most aspects of development in the county is a zoning shift from minimum lot size to average density. The county currently operates with a simplistic model in which land zoned Ag/residential-20 can’t be split into lots smaller than 20 acres, and can have only one house (and one accessory unit) on each lot. By changing to an average density model, Heneage explained that a developer could cluster small lots in a large subdivision while leaving most of the land undisturbed.
“The goal isn’t to micromanage what developers do,” Heneage said. “They’ll tend to compress these projects because it makes infrastructure improvements cheaper. The developer wins with less up front costs and the community wins because it preserves more open space.”
“And it facilitates large landowners’ ability to carve up land for their family members to inherit,” Larson added. “This makes that process a lot easier.”
Also, the planned unit development will be a thing of the past. PUDs were used by developers, particularly before the recession, to cram more housing into subdivisions than was otherwise allowed by the code.
“The PUD had too much density bonus built into it. We were just giving away too much,” Larson said, referring to some of the infamous PUDs of yesteryear like Mahogany Ridge.
Other revelations from the first phase of public outreach performed last summer are available to read at the county’s website.
Undeterred by the delay in the code update process, county planning department recently released its comprehensive plan annual report, which lays out the county’s progress toward meeting the goals set in the comprehensive plan. According to the annual report, once the draft code is ready, the county planning department will launch an “aggressive advertising effort” to let people know how to attend an open house and how to provide meaningful input. The report is available to read at tetoncountyidaho.gov/planning.