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Shawn Smith, a partner on the proposed Victor Hotel and Workforce Housing development, provided the members of city council this site plan at last week’s meeting, despite not being the applicant seeking the rezone. The city is the applicant on behalf of Smith and the property owner, Jonathan Fenn.

Victor approves Fenn rezone despite public opposition

The Victor City Council surprised some of its constituents by unanimously approving a rezone on the northwest side of town after receiving strong pushback from the community.

Different iterations of the proposed Victor Hotel and Workforce Housing project across the highway from Larkspur Avenue have been working their way through the city planning department since 2017. Most recently, in April, the city took it upon itself to apply for the rezone of the western 16 acres of the property. The requested switch from RS-7 to RS-3 would allow the developer, Jonathan Fenn, to use the cottage court building model, which had been removed from the RS-7 zone last February after the VHWH concept plan (complete with 13 cottage courts) was approved. Cottage courts are neighborhoods of small houses that share an internal courtyard, but some in the city feel the building type has been misused in the last few years, which is why Victor put into place design standards and guidelines and removed cottage courts from some residential zones in 2018.

City planner Ryan Krueger said the reason the city, not the developer, was applying for the rezone was to “reset expectations established under previous city staff.”

However, at the city council meeting on May 22, Fenn’s partner in the development, Shawn Smith, presented the council with examples of a site plan and concept plan that were not available to the public prior to the meeting. While Smith was treated as a member of the public rather than the applicant, he introduced new information to the hearing.

Before and during the planning and zoning meeting on April 16 and the city council meeting on May 22, the city received over sixty written and spoken comments in opposition to the rezone. People called the rezone “special treatment of a developer” and spot zoning, and described the proposed development as “unsightly,” “sprawl,” and “inappropriate.”

In addition to giving comment, some members of the public attempted to halt the unpopular rezone in unusual ways. Two citizens started a petition against it, while Valley Advocates for Responsible Development brought to light some supposedly incriminating communiqués between city staff members and the developer.

Victor residents Kate Koons and Barbara Aronowitz have been circulating a citizen initiative petition asking the city to deannex the Fenn property and other land on the northwest edge of town. While they had gathered dozens of signatures from Victor voters, they hadn’t reached the threshold to be considered by the council by the time of Wednesday’s meeting. The mayor spoke against the idea of deannexation, saying it wasn’t a topic of consideration because the property was less than a mile from downtown, served by city utilities, surrounded on all sides by in-city land, and identified by the comprehensive plan and future land use map as a residential city neighborhood. If enough signatures are gathered, the initiative could go to the ballot, although not in time for November's election.

Meanwhile, VARD made a public records request on May 9 for emails between city staff, the developer, and other involved parties. The nonprofit’s executive director Shawn Hill came to Wednesday’s meeting armed with a thick stack of printouts. Hill quoted the city planner telling the developer that the city would be an advocate for him, and the city attorney, Herb Heimerl, making references to a lawsuit and to a settlement.

“When you have that much correspondence it’s pretty clear that the developer is getting special treatment,” Hill later told the Teton Valley News. “The city and the developer had extensive discussions to come up with an unorthodox agreement that favors a single landowner.”

When given a chance to respond to the allegations, Heimerl said that no “backroom deals” could come to pass without the involvement of decision makers. He said that while he and the developer’s legal counsel had disagreed on case law and the city’s land use code, no lawsuits had been filed and there was no written settlement agreement or even an informal “handshake deal.” He concluded that the emails were taken out of the context of a very complex matter.

Krueger added that he was an advocate for any applicant seeking to build a project within the city.

“That’s my meeting style, that’s my management style,” he said. “Taken out of context, I can see how that might sound nefarious.”

Mayor Jeff Potter defended the employees of the city in no uncertain terms.

“Accusing our staff of impropriety or backroom deals or sweetheart deals with a developer is truly offensive,” Potter said with some heat. “I take a lot of pride in the staff that I’ve brought to the city and that are here.”

The mayor also noted that many of the people commenting in opposition to the development seemed to hold a personal grudge against the developer, or that they were reacting to a “fabricated rendering” from VARD that outlined the proposed density of the project.

“We set the rules and we have to follow our own rules,” he continued. “We don’t have the luxury of making decisions based on whether or not we like the individual applying for something within the city.”

When the mayor finished speaking and it became apparent that the council would deliberate on details of the rezone rather than striking it down, most of the meeting attendees left the building.

“This was a good example of why the public doesn’t get involved with government proceedings,” Hill told the Teton Valley News this week. “The public really rallied against this project and made it clear they did not want it…The city has made this process so convoluted by introducing new information and adding complexity and it puts the public at a disadvantage.”

Despite the public reaction, the city council came to the same conclusion that P&Z did: the city would have more control and oversight of the development if it allowed a rezone with conditions, rather than allowing the developer to fully build out the lots in the current zone, unchecked by design review or a development agreement.

The city is also attempting to add restrictions to the development agreement that would encourage affordable housing, although the city council members could not decide what those restrictions would look like (or if they should even exist; council members Tim Wells and Dustin Green voiced opposition to such regulation.) Now that the rezone has been approved, Fenn will need to undergo site plan and design review as well as several other steps in the development process.

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