Most of the Teton County Planning & Zoning Commission were visibly uncomfortable as they deliberated over a 121-lot subdivision during their Oct. 12 meeting.
The Ranch, a large neighborhood proposed for the vacant land east of Saddleback Vistas off E 4000 S, is a concept that is in compliance with the county’s existing land development code, although some members of P&Z said they felt the development is too dense to fit with the county’s comprehensive plan.
“I feel trapped,” Commissioner Erica Tremblay said after reviewing the subdivision concept plan at Tuesday’s meeting.
It wasn’t the first time in recent months that the commissioners wrestled with the seeming incongruence between the decades-old land development and the 2012 comprehensive plan. In 2020 the county started to receive and process an increasing number of large subdivision applications, a trend that has continued this year, even as the county also works to adopt a new code.
If approved, the Ranch could be one of the biggest non-planned unit development (PUD) subdivisions platted in the county. At Tuesday’s public hearing, P&Z chair Jack Haddox and contract planner Joshua Chase tried to think of other subdivisions in the valley that compared. River Rim Ranch, a PUD west of Tetonia, is much larger, as is Teton Springs south of Victor; West Ridge Ranch, a PUD southwest of Tetonia, is almost the same size at 120 lots.
The property in question was once included as phases of the Saddleback Vistas PUD, but the land was sold at auction in 2014. The Ranch’s project engineer, Taylor Cook (who is also a county P&Z commissioner, but has recused himself from deliberations on projects he oversees) explained that the owner of the property originally believed that the land was still constrained by the Saddleback Vistas master plan and that only 80 or so lots were allowed.
However, “after involving an attorney,” as Cook put it, it was confirmed that because the later phases of Saddleback Vistas were never platted, the land can be developed according to its zone of agricultural/rural residential-2.5. Hence the 121 lots, averaging almost three acres per lot.
The size of the subdivisions triggers every single study in the county code, planner Chase explained. That includes a natural resources analysis with a focus on wetlands and wildlife habitat inventory, a nutrient pathogen evaluation, an establishment of base flood elevation, a fiscal impact analysis, and a traffic impact study.
The Ranch concept plan does not include any parks or open space, as they are not required unless the developer were pursuing a PUD, which enables increased density in exchange for open space.
Neighboring property owners as well as the City of Driggs wrote and spoke in opposition to the project. Their concerns included water supply and septic systems (individual wells and septic tanks are proposed for each lot), traffic on the nearby roads, and wildlife.
“It’s an aggressive proposal, I’m not denying that, but it fits the current code,” Cook told the commissioners.
Five of the six commissioners voiced their antipathy toward the proposal.
Commissioner Rebeca Nolan referenced the song “Little Boxes” by Malvina Reynolds (the opening lyrics of the song are: “Little boxes on the hillside, Little boxes made of ticky tacky, Little boxes on the hillside, Little boxes all the same”), while Tremblay said, “I have no legal right not to push this forward but I feel it’s completely incompatible with the neighborhood.”
Commissioner Tim Watters agreed, saying, “We’ve been told as a commission that the code has to trump the comp plan, and this is allowed under the code. But I think we have an obligation even at the concept stage to require someone to come to us with something that makes sense, that has some thoughtful process...The fact that someone can come to us with this concept and say, ‘We’re not going to buffer this thing, we’re not going to have any pathways, we’re not going to have any open space’—I can’t support it, I won’t support it, I think the vision of the comp plan doesn’t support it.”
Only Commissioner Wyatt Penfold spoke in favor of the application. “We can’t oppose this...It just shows, if you don’t like what’s going on in the backyard, try to find the money to stop it, to buy them out, because the code allows this at the current time. It meets all of our standards, they will go through all the hoops that are in place right now. I think he’s done a good job getting it started, and that’s what this is, a start.”
Penfold moved to approve the concept plan, but the other commissioners abstained from the vote because of their strong feelings about the application. Watters then moved to deny the concept plan, saying the plan provided no proof of public benefit within the subdivision or mitigation of its impact to nearby properties. The motion was about to pass when planner Chase stepped in to recommend that the commission tie its decision to specific parts of the code.
Cook offered to add to the design of the concept plan if P&Z agreed to continue the application rather than deny it.
The commissioners agreed to the offer, and voted unanimously to continue the hearing pending more information.
If or when the Ranch concept plan is approved, the developer will need to perform all the studies required, then apply for preliminary plat approval. The preliminary plat application will be the subject of public hearings before P&Z and the board of county commissioners. Only after that approval and after installing public infrastructure can the developer seek final plat approval and sell lots in the subdivision.