October 5, 2016
Teton County Planning & Zoning Commission
150 Courthouse Drive
Driggs, ID 83422
Re: Draft Land Use Code
Dear Members of the Commission:
First, a hearty thanks for your years of hard work on the draft Land Use Code. Your dedication is greatly appreciated, and we thank you for your years of service on this and other important planning & zoning matters.
You will find that the comments offered here are conceptual in nature. Our observation of the draft Land Use Code is that it is the product of over 2 years of internal Planning & Zoning Commission (PZC) deliberation, a process that has offered few opportunities for public input on the myriad policy decisions contained within. Though the Comprehensive Plan puts forth a grand policy vision, it often lacks specificity. The lack of specificity is intentional so that the community can achieve consensus on broad policy before undertaking specific implementation efforts prior to code drafting. Pre-coding implementation efforts include a series of rigorous, issue-specific studies and analyses (many of which are specifically identified in Chapter 6 and mentioned later in this letter) so that the code writing process is iterative and methodical. The Comprehensive Plan’s lofty goals and policies are a collection of great ideas that require a great deal of formulation before they are manifest in code. This requires the public engagement in a manner that is topical, accessible, and within Comp Plan parameters. We believe that a good planning effort – particularly code drafting – requires the engagement of experts, stakeholders, and the general public early and often.
The issues discussed in this letter may be familiar to you. In October 2015, Valley Advocates issued a six-part informational series called Decoding the Code, where we attempted to distill the weighty policy issues that, from our perspective, form the seminal elements of the Land Use Code. This letter reiterates much of the discussion in the Decoding the Code series, which we intended to help facilitate the necessary public discourse for weighty topics like density, natural resource protection, scenic resource protection, development design, infrastructure, and other fundamental issues.
Though we recognize the Planning & Zoning Commission (PZC) prefers comments aimed toward certain specific code provisions, the comments offered here are directed toward the major policy positions embedded within this voluminous document. In order to frame our forthcoming comment, we believe that it is necessary to unpack some of the most critical policy issues in the course of registering our comment to the public record. With that in mind, our comments are as follows:
1. Land Divisions are over-prescribed. The Comprehensive Plan lists several Key Actions in the Agricultural & Rural Heritage section of Chapter 6, which are as follows:
*Create/amend ordinances and programs to promote Large Lot Subdivisions;
* Consider amending the Subdivision Ordinance to allow Family Lot Splits and/or a Short Plat process;
These key actions flow from Chapter 5 Policies and Chapter 6 purpose statements (under the headers of “Where Are We Now?,” “Where Do We Want to Go?” and “Tools”). It is clear that these Key Actions are intended to preserve “agricultural and rural lands and a distinct rural character” and promote “continued multi-generational agricultural heritage.” However, as drafted in the draft Land Use Code, Land Division options allow for an expedited process for lots that are only slightly larger than what is required under the current underlying zoning in most of the county. These options appear to be available to all non-agricultural uses, and the minimum lot size required (e.g. 20 acres in rural zones, 3.75 acres in the Agriculture Rural Neighborhood) is far less than what is required for most bona fide agricultural operations. We also note that Land Division and Short Plat options are exempt from several key public noticing requirements currently required of all subdivisions. Oftentimes, public noticing is the only means by which property owners are alerted to potential development adjacent to or near their properties. Current noticing requirements are minimal as is; we’ve observed that even the most vigilant of valley citizens have difficulty staying abreast of proposed development near their homes. At a minimum, we recommend that existing noticing requirements are carried forth in the new code.
2. Subdivision regulations are subjective. Predictability is a virtue in any land use code, and the Comprehensive Plan certainly embraces predictability when it comes to the preservation of natural resources, protection of agricultural heritage, management of public facilities and services, and the promotion of steady economic growth. However, the draft Land Use Code defers many key decisions regarding open space design, habitat preservation, scenic lands, protection of important agricultural lands, fiscal impacts, and market sustainability to subdivision approval. Many of these decisions are to be based on the studies required in Article 13 – if they are required at all. In the event that these studies are required, it is unclear if a proposed subdivision will garner approval or denial based on the findings of a given study. For example, some subdivisions require a Public Service/Fiscal Impact Analysis, but it is unclear what the approval outcome for development will be if a development is shown to have a negative fiscal impact. Will the county tolerate any impact? None? What happens when developer-commissioned studies put forth dubious findings? Questions such as these abound and, if experience is any indicator, will subject the citizens of Teton County to more protracted, tedious, and opaque development decisions – and could possibly usher in a new era of all-night hearings.
3. Density should reflect the intent of the Comprehensive Plan. On the eve of the PZC’s Comp Plan recommendation in 2012, the commission held a lengthy debate on the specific language in Policy ED 4, which states as follows:
“Accommodate additional population by supporting development that is economically responsible to the County and the community.”
The crux of the issue was a recommendation put forth by the Comprehensive Plan Economic Development Committee, which stated that potential lot supply in Teton County should be eliminated by 75% in order to stabilize the local real estate market. The PZC rephrased the recommended 75% figure to “accommodate population growth” knowing full well that this term could effectively mean a 100% elimination in a county with 9000 vacant lots given the county’s typically nominal population growth. Either way, it was recognized that Teton County would likely require significantly reduced density in order to meet the goals and policies put forth in the Comprehensive Plan’s Economic Development, Agriculture & Rural Heritage, and Natural Resource & Recreation sections.
In the Rural Agriculture, Foothill, and Wetland Agriculture areas, the Comprehensive Plan recommends “low” densities throughout. In the Mixed Ag/Rural Neighborhood, the plan recommends “low” to “medium.” Though the plan stops short of quantifying densities in these zones, we believe it is safe to say that “low density” is equal to or less than the density currently prescribed for most of those areas – 20 acres. The draft Land Use Code, however, doubles density to 10 acres in most areas. Though we appreciate that this density is achievable only by providing 75% open space, we believe it is inconsistent with the clear policy intent of the Comprehensive Plan. The issue here is lot supply, not open space. We also appreciate that the P&Z seeks to avoid disagreement from landowners who perceive a decrease in value from reduced zoning. However, we maintain that recommended densities in the Comprehensive Plan should be followed not only to maintain consistency with the plan, but to also stabilize real estate markets over the long term. This, we believe, is necessary to ensure economic and environmental sustainability for Teton Valley.
Finally, we recognize that the draft code significantly reduces potential density from what is possible under the existing code. The planning staff’s analysis shows that the existing code allows over 33,000 lots, while the proposed code reduces this figure to just over 17,000. In both cases, this is in addition to the existing 7,000 vacant lots in Teton County, and in both cases, this far exceeds the population growth threshold set forth in the Comprehensive Plan. However, in our opinion, we wish to pose a more fundamental question: what is the desired character of Teton Valley? Under the draft code scenario, it appears the effective population of the county would exceed 50,000, which is roughly the population of Idaho Falls. Maintaining a small-town character, perhaps more than anything, will impact the Comprehensive Plan’s economic development, natural resource protection, agricultural heritage, transportation, and community facilities goals. We believe that any discussion about density should be informed by a robust community discussion about the carrying capacity of Teton Valley, and how increased lot supply will impact the cherished character of our valley and the quality of life we enjoy.
4. Wildlife Protections should not be weakened. The current Natural Resources Overlay (referred to as the Wildlife Habitat Overlay in Title 9) was developed with the input of the Idaho Department of Fish & Game (IDFG) and many local wildlife/natural resource experts. This is especially true with the current Natural Resources Overlay map, which has been carefully prepared to protect indicator species and species of special concern in Teton County. Our comments with regard to wildlife protections are twofold:
A. We believe the current Natural Resources Map should not be replaced with the proposed Wildlife Habitat Protection Map. The Wildlife Habitat Protection Map is the vegetative cover map sourced from IDFG’s 2012 A Summary of Key Fish & Wildlife in Teton County, Idaho, and though vegetative cover is important for wildlife habitat, it is only one of many characteristics that comprise wildlife habitat. Moreover, we understand that IDFG’s map was not intended to be a zoning tool, but merely a high-level indicator of certain types of vegetation cover. The existing Natural Resources Map was created through a collaboration of regional and local experts, and we recommend that the county continue to use it with updates from the most recent data available.
B. We recommend against the density exemption for the wildlife habitat assessment. After consultation with many local and regional wildlife experts, we’ve learned that blanket exemptions may be damaging to wildlife habitat. Currently, Title 9 offers no exemption for decreased densities, and we recommend the continuation of this practice.
5. Scenic Resources should be protected comprehensively. Though we appreciate that the Scenic Corridor will largely remain intact, the Comprehensive Plan puts forth several Key Actions with respect to the protection of scenic resources:
*Inventory and assess scenic values and views, priority areas, and beautification areas.
*Identify viewshed corridors and develop techniques to protect them.
Again, we note that the “scenic corridor” carries forth from the old code to the new, but we believe the Comprehensive Plan, through several goals, policies, and the aforementioned key actions, recommends an inventory of all scenic vistas in the valley and techniques to protect them. Like many Rocky Mountain basins, our valley is broad with a flat, sparsely-forested valley floor. Viewsheds extend for miles and techniques oriented toward landscape-level scenic overlays could be used in Teton Valley as in many other peer communities. We recommend that a scenic resource inventory be completed per the Key Actions put forth in the Comprehensive Plan, thereby paving the way for effective, predictable, and consistently applied scenic resource protections.
6. The draft code contains no new tools to address zombie subdivisions. The overabundance of subdivision lots is a central issue in the Comprehensive Plan, and in an effort to achieve the plan’s economic development, natural resource, agricultural heritage, and community service/facility goals, the vacation and replatting of subdivisions is discussed at length. In 2011, Valley Advocates assisted Teton County with a streamlined process to encourage the vacation/replatting of vacant subdivisions, which has been successful in eliminating many “paper” plats – subdivisions where no infrastructure has been installed or is held by a single owner. The Comprehensive Plan seeks to build on this progress with the introduction of new tools through the specific Key Actions:
*Mitigate the economic impact of non-viable subdivisions.
*Incentivize vacation of non-viable subdivisions in or near migration corridors or sensitive habitats.
*Vacate non-viable subdivisions; amend County Code to strengthen penalties for weed violations.
The Comprehensive Plan also goes on to state the following:
“Subdivision impact fees and the provision and timing of infrastructure should be reexamined with these subdivision vacation and replat regulations in mind. New provisions should be added to the [Land Use] Code. Other Code criteria may center on whether the County can economically provide services to subdivisions that have not begun development. Subdivisions that meet certain criteria could be replatted to meet the goals Chapter 6. Implementation of this Comprehensive Plan, including reduced lot sizes and open space conservation, according to a replat Code provision.”
Though we appreciate that the existing language regarding replatting/vacation procedures has been carried forth in the draft Land Use Code, there appear to be no new tools that would further incentivize the elimination or reshaping of existing subdivisions. Current tools have eliminated nearly 10% of the existing vacant lot supply, and the current inventory of these lots now stands at just over 7,000. Clearly, more work ought to be done on this front, and we believe that further study should be done on this issue.
Again, we commend you for your work on this project, which is oftentimes thankless. In making your recommendation to the Board of County Commissioners, we would encourage you to identify the topics within the Land Use Code that, in your view, require special attention. Your work has been an important step in the Land Use Code overhaul, and we thank you for positioning this all-important issue for a robust community discussion.
Shawn W. Hill