Tyvek is popping up throughout Victor. Public notices stand in farm fields. A whole lotta dirt is getting moved in Driggs. In case you were wondering, yes, the boom is back. So how can the Teton Valley get the best deal with this new wave of development?
In the last eight months, Driggs, Victor, and Teton County have seen an uptick in rezoning requests from landowners and developers. The vast majority seek to change zoning from residential to commercial — often outside of the developed area of the city itself (aka rural sprawl). More often than not, developers seeking to change their zoning from residential to commercial will tout economic benefits and commitment to quality design as justification for such a generous approval. “New jobs! New taxes!” they say. “Our buildings will be beautiful! Our landscaping will be lush!”
If you think taking developers at their word is a good economic development strategy for Teton Valley, then I’ve got a bridge over South Leigh Creek to sell you (Immaculate condition! Funding guaranteed! No legal issues whatsoever!).
The truth of the matter is that Teton Valley is about as good as it gets. Why would we ever want drastic, overnight change? We all moved — or stayed — here because we love this valley, warts and all. Why would we want it be just like the place we escaped from? Every trip to the Wasatch Front is a reminder of why I left in the first place. The vast fields and small town character of my boyhood home in Kaysville has been devoured by the shiny promises of developers — and the gullible politicians who believed them.
Since we mostly have what we want already, what does this mean for developers? I believe it means developers must be prepared to negotiate in good faith with the public. They must prove to the community how they will embrace Teton Valley’s cherished character, and prove in earnest how their projects will further the myriad plans and policies put forth by our smart, seasoned citizenry. This community deserves better than a speculative project where the end game is to flip the property.
The recent spate of rezones have been a mixed bag in this regard. The Rodatos rezone north of Driggs was denied by Teton County and the Driggs City Council — despite support from the mayor and staff — because the developer failed to provide the guarantees necessary to ensure he was going to do what he said he was going to do. The Grover rezone south of Driggs was DOA from the beginning because of the prospect of speculative commercial development right at Driggs’ unmarred southern gateway. These are two examples of Teton County and Driggs taking a prudent stand against sprawl.
The Fenn rezone in Victor stands in stark contrast to Rodatos and Grover. There, the developer first asked for a rezone to allow a variety of commercial, industrial, and cottage court development on a parcel that is literally farm fields north of town. Then he switched tactics midstream to a subdivision instead, presented a back-of-the-napkin Concept Plan, bullied the
P&Z to approve it, then threatened to sue the city if it tried to uphold its cottage court ban. Even though the developer was really trying to just keep both irons in the fire until he figured out which one was most lucrative, the city caved and made that decision easy for him. And by caved, I mean handed over all their cards: Victor went so far as to initiate a rezone on the developer’s behalf so that the repealed cottage courts could be allowed on his property — but not his neighbors. The City’s stated reasoning is that that by caving now, they’ll have more power later. Unfortunately, we’ve seen this gambit played out many times in our 18 years of working in Teton Valley. It never works. Surrendering your lunch money today will not appease the bully tomorrow.
Why do cities cave to such pressure? One reason is that even just the threat of litigation is often enough to make them cower, even if it means fighting the good fight (i.e. protecting the character of Teton Valley). The other reason is as old as the hills: zoning for taxes. Behind every sprawl there is the maniacal drive to increase tax coffers to fund more...stuff. As the reasoning goes, if a government gets more tax revenue, then it will, at some undetermined point in the future, have enough money to do everything it wants. The problem is that development begets more problems, and more money is required to fix those problems. As a former planner for the Town of Jackson, I can tell you personally that even though Jackson has an annual budget of $20 million, town officials will tell you it’s never enough.
So, where do we go from here? I propose that Driggs, Victor, Tetonia, and Teton County position themselves for maximum leverage. Slow, methodical decision-making leads to the most equitable, successful, and legally-defensible land use decisions. Doing this is simple: recognize we’ve got it good already, and that we can take or leave development proposals as they come in. We don’t have to settle for scraps and cave to threats. In this dynamic, the good developers will succeed, and the bad ones will be sent packing. That, my friends, is a recipe for success — and the continuation of the Teton Valley we all know and love.