On Wednesday, Oct. 27, the Teton County Planning & Zoning Commission, instead of making a recommendation to the board of county commissioners on the draft land development code, chose to keep working on the document in hopes of addressing some of the concerns and misinformation circulating about the code.
The commission had received over 600 written comments in the prior week regarding its revised draft of the code, as well as almost four hours of testimony during the two-part public hearing on Monday and Wednesday.
“We need more time to digest the massive amount of comments we’ve received,” said Commissioner Rebeca Nolan after the public hearing closed on Wednesday.
Responding to requests from some members of the community, Commissioner Wyatt Penfold proposed a new steering committee, different from the one formed in 2019 to guide the process. Penfold asked for a committee with representatives from different advocacy groups as well as the public, so P&Z could get more feedback from outside voices. The original steering committee was composed of a county commissioner, current and former P&Z commissioners, and county planning staff, with direction from the consultant hired to write the new code.
In 2019 during the initial outreach period, the consultant and steering committee held an open house and hosted interviews with realtors, landowners, nonprofits, public agencies, and other stakeholders to assess the current code and development a framework for the new one.
After Covid forced a pause in the process, the group began meeting again last year and produced a draft of the code for public review this spring. Much of the community responded negatively, sending letters in opposition to the P&Z and speaking against parts of the code or all of it at the first public hearing on May 24.
Since then, the P&Z commissioners have met frequently to iron out some of the flaws in the document. They presented another draft to the public in early October, and while some people said in their subsequent comments that the new version was an improvement, many were still opposed to it, with concerns that ranged from scenic bylaw regulations, limits on home businesses, and the lack of incentives for affordable housing, to the decreased allowed density across parts of the valley with the elimination of the ubiquitous 2.5-acre rural residential zone.
On Wednesday, Commissioner Bert Michelbacher said he thought the commission, through the many work sessions of the past six months, had incorporated as much of the first batch of comments from the May hearing as possible.
“We’re doing the best we can,” he said, and added that he didn’t appreciate the tone of some of the most strongly-worded comments that included profanities and personal attacks on the P&Z commissioners.
Commissioners Erica Tremblay and Tim Watters agreed that more education on the existing code and new code would be a good place to start, saying there has been some misunderstanding and misinformation around the code and a “healthy level of distrust,” as Watters put it.
“We need to come together as a community and understand how we can make Teton County prosperous and nice,” Tremblay said, adding that she wished P&Z could have some kind of Q&A session to explain the rationale behind certain aspects of the code. As an example, she pointed out that the current code has over three pages of restrictions and regulations on home businesses, while the proposed code has less than one. (Links to the current code appear to be broken on the county website, meaning it can only be reviewed in person at the courthouse.)
Watters was concerned about continuing to delay the adoption of a new code while “moving full steam ahead on accepting applications under the existing code.”
The county has seen a huge increase in subdivision applications in the past year, partly due to the pending new code that would not allow the proliferation of 2.5-acre lots. Meanwhile, the county lacks a full time planning administrator. Some P&Z members have said they felt trapped into approving plans that don’t conform to the county’s comprehensive plan. They agreed on Wednesday to put the item on their agenda for a future discussion.
Despite that worry, the commissioners voted unanimously to continue working on the draft code, and to form a subcommittee to garner more input on the details of the code. The decision garnered a brief round of applause from the audience in the meeting room.
“Personally, my view has always been, if I have both extremes mad at me and I’m somewhere in between them, hopefully close to the center, then it’s gotta be right,” said P&Z chair Jack Haddox. “What I’ve heard is from all this is, I’m not in the middle, I’m somewhere off to one side, so maybe it’s time to do a reset and get back to the middle again.”