A vocal and energized opposition greeted the representatives of the national resort chain Under Canvas at Tuesday’s Teton County Planning & Zoning Commission meeting. Despite a savvy performance by the potential developer, members of the public and the P&Z board made it clear they didn’t feel that Moose Creek was an appropriate location for a 90-unit glampground.
Under Canvas offers “safari inspired glamping accommodations” in large canvas tents. Most of its eight locations are situated just outside national parks such as Glacier, the Great Smoky Mountains, and the Grand Canyon. In November of 2019 the company applied for a conditional use permit to operate a campground on the corner of Old Jackson Highway and Moose Creek Road (E 10800 S). The 92-acre property is zoned for agricultural/rural residential 2.5-acre lots and is owned by the Hare family. The land is listed for $2.1 million and the sale is contingent upon approval of the conditional use permit.
The site plan for Under Canvas Teton, which will be marketed to visitors of Grand Teton National Park, shows clusters of tents on the eastern slopes of the property. The resort will have communal fire pits, bathroom facilities, and a lobby tent with a commercial kitchen trailer. The campground will operate seasonally, with the tents dismantled each winter, although the frames, communal bathrooms, and main building will remain year-round.
Before the P&Z public hearing originally scheduled for January, the county had received over 80 comments about the project, mostly opposed. Citizens expressed their concerns which included neighborhood compatibility, impacts to wildlife, natural resources, and water quality, increased traffic, wildfire hazards, and inadequate road infrastructure. When the meeting was rescheduled to Feb. 11 due to weather, a new fleet of comments arrived, many of them from people familiar with other Under Canvas properties who wrote favorably of the company.
Buoyed with investment dollars from the private equity firm KSL Capital Partners, Under Canvas appears to be making plays for communities across the country, with varying degrees of success. While the company has announced the upcoming launch of properties near Joshua Tree, Yosemite, Catalina, Sonoma, and Acadia, according to local news sources it has also recently withdrawn applications in the Hudson Valley area and Sedona due to public opposition based on concerns echoed by Teton County residents.
Under Canvas worked with Anderson Engineering out of Bozeman as well as local professionals, including environmental consulting firm Biota, engineering firm Harmony Design, and legal counsel Kathy Spitzer, to produce a substantial CUP application compete with a traffic impact study, nutrient-pathogen evaluation, fire protection plan, natural resource analysis, wildlife plan, and scenic corridor evaluation.
“I’ve never seen an application for a CUP that provided so much information,” county planning administrator Gary Armstrong told P&Z at Tuesday’s meeting. Adding to the already bulky application, Under Canvas submitted an addendum on Jan. 30 in response to some of the comments from the county, citizens, and agencies regarding the comprehensive plan, wildlife, and traffic impacts.
The audience of over 50 people filled the meeting chambers and spilled out into the hallway. Under Canvas sent a series of experts into the fray to defend the application from the angles of traffic, wildlife, and community impacts.
First, vice president of real estate and development Mark Foster presented Under Canvas as civically and environmentally minded. He announced several measures the company was willing to take to address some of the public’s concerns. For instance, no pets will be allowed at the resort, the company will pay for employee housing, the developer supports traffic calming measures on Old Jackson Highway, and there will only be two or three communal firepits on site. (It was later mentioned, however, that each unit has its own wood fired stove, a revelation that cause loud grumbles from the audience.)
Under Canvas opted to cluster the units on the hillside, Foster explained, to strike a balance between respecting neighbors and providing a natural experience to guests. Kent Werlin with Biota described the extensive habitat restoration measures that the company will implement in the meadow next to Old Jackson Highway. However, in Idaho Fish & Game’s comment letter, the agency wrote, “The project is proposed to be located in the most important [wildlife] habitat within the project area...Project impacts could be minimized by clustering the development nearer to the Old Jackson Highway or Moose Creek Road.”
While many community members have taken issue with the conclusions made in the traffic impact study because it was performed in November, traffic engineer Jeff Pillus explained that he used the Idaho Transportation Department’s July 2019 numbers and found that peak Under Canvas traffic would not coincide with peak commuter traffic. The company has also committed to further conversations with Teton Valley Trails & Pathways regarding Old Jackson Highway, which is a multi-use road and part of the Greater Yellowstone Trail.
After Under Canvas’s presentation, the P&Z commissioners heard over an hour of public comment, primarily in opposition but with a few positive and neutral comments sprinkled in. Several people, including developer Mark Rockefeller, mentioned how thorough and well-prepared the applicant was.
One point Under Canvas and its proponents have brought up is the potential for alternative development, were the land sold to a different entity. During its informal outreach meetings and in its application, Under Canvas has warned of the possibility of up to 37 houses with 37 accessory units, if the property were subdivided.
In her comments on Tuesday, land use attorney Leah Corrigan pointed out the multiple expensive hurdles a developer would have to clear to cram 37 residential units onto the property, noting that even if the applicant performed a nutrient-pathogen evaluation, traffic impact study, natural resource analysis, fiscal analysis, sight line analysis, and other high-dollar mitigation measures required by county code, a subdivision there would likely not be approved.
“It’s simply not the case that you have to make a choice between two evils,” Corrigan said.
After the hearing closed, P&Z was tasked with weighing whether the project met the four criteria of approval for a conditional use permit: compatibility with other neighboring uses; no undue burden on public services and facilities; a site that is large enough for the project; and compliance with the comprehensive plan. The commissioners did not take long to deliberate, agreeing that the project had its virtues but that the location seemed inappropriate.
P&Z chairman Chris Larson told the Under Canvas team that their environmentally friendly efforts were laudable and their design was aesthetically pleasing, but that the impacts to wildlife, roads, and air quality seemed untenable. Commissioner Sarah Johnston said she couldn’t wrap her head around the idea that a 90-unit commercial development was compatible with low-density residential zoning, and that Under Canvas seemed to straddle the line between campground, hotel, and dude ranch. New P&Z members Erica Tremblay, Bert Michelbacher, and Aidan Sullivan each expressed their opinion that a resort campground did not belong on a wildlife-rich hillside in a residential area. The board voted unanimously to recommend denial of the CUP application.
The Teton Board of County Commissioners will review the CUP at another public hearing on March 9 at 9:30 a.m. Visit the county website to view the entire application and all public comments.