By Angus M. Thuermer Jr., WyoFile.com
Gov. Mark Gordon today allowed a bill stripping county authority over private school zoning to become law without his signature saying in a written statement he found the measure “flawed.”
The decision allows the Jackson Hole Classical Academy to build its campus south of Jackson as planned on land zoned for rural development. The academy seeks to construct buildings larger than the county’s 10,000 square-foot limit in that zone.
The law now exempts private schools from Teton County’s zoning rules as well as those of Wyoming’s other 22 counties.
“I believe this bill is flawed and so I will not sign it,” Gordon wrote in a letter to Senate President Drew Perkins (R-Casper). “[B]ut as I have done with other bills, I will take this opportunity to recommend that the [L]egislature and local governments continue to work to find a better way to sort out the types of impasses that begat this legislation closer to home.” (See the governor’s letter below.)
Passage of the bill “sets an unfortunate precedent,” Gordon wrote, saying that new paradigm “could be corrected with some diligence, equanimity, and foresight.”
Rep. Andy Schwartz, (D-Jackson), who fought the bill, said he was not surprised. “I did not expect him to veto it, to be very honest,” Schwartz told WyoFile. “I’m more disappointed that it passed the Legislature.”
Sen. Mike Gierau (D-Jackson), who co-sponsored the bill, also figured the governor would let it become law, he said. “The one thing I make sure people understand is if you have over 50 acres and you have someone come with a school with 50 kids, you can have the same standing that a public school has,” Gierau said.
WyoFile did not receive a response to a request for comment from a representative of the Jackson Hole Classical Academy.
Supporters of the bill said it would level the playing field between public and private schools, given that public schools largely escape county siting oversight. Critics called the bill special-interest legislation tailored for the Foster Friess family and Jackson Hole Classical Academy.
A major theme in the debate was the extent to which local communities should exercise control over their own destinies. Teton County Commissioners changed one land-use law to allow the school to operate starting at 7 a.m., but refused to permit larger buildings in the rural zone county-wide as proposed by the academy.
Gordon wrote that he believes government is best closest to the people and when it governs the least. “This bill sits in the saddle between those two,” his letter reads. Ultimately, the legislation turned out “vastly less offensive to local control than it was to begin with,” he wrote.
The academy wanted rules changed to allow 30,000 square-foot buildings in the rural zone. The GOP, which holds supermajorities in the House and Senate, has a statewide platform that includes a plank backing local control. But the party’s willingness to buck that plank when considering Teton County issues irks Schwartz, the lawmaker said.
“This was one bill that was part of a trend I’m very concerned about,” Schwartz said. “The trend [is] if you don’t like the decisions made locally you can appeal it to the Legislature. That’s not how representative democracy is supposed to work.”
Gierau said he urged Teton County residents to resolve the issue at home. He believes the regulation limiting building size — the foundation of the dispute — was meant for residences, not institutions, he said.
“Teton County got it wrong in the master plan years ago, especially about 10,000 square-foot buildings,” he said. “They let that one get by them.”
Schwartz is worried lawmakers will now take another run to strip Teton County of its authority — this time blocking it from requiring real estate developers to pony up for affordable housing, he said. Efforts to wipe that requirement from county rules have surfaced, and failed, twice in Cheyenne.
“I have every expectation to see it again next year,” Schwartz said.
That topic did not appear on a list of issues to be studied before the next legislative Session, Gierau said. He said he supports that local zoning tool to some extent.
Steve and Polly Friess want to build a 116,000 square foot Jackson Hole Classical Academy campus south of Jackson. Steve Friess is the son of Foster Friess, a gubernatorial candidate who lost to Gordon in the GOP primary election. Polly Friess is Steve Friess’ wife.
Unsatisfied with county decisions and claiming officials had unduly erected roadblocks, the Academy and its backers sought relief in Cheyenne. An aide to Foster Friess said the multi-millionaire, philanthropist, Christian backer and Republican mega donor had a “platform and influence” that would increase chances of passing legislation that would allow the classical academy to be developed.
Sen. Eli Bebout (R-Riverton), immediate past president of the Senate, was a principal sponsor of SF49 County zoning authority – local control that now prohibits counties statewide from controlling the location, use or occupancy of private schools.
Gierau (D-Jackson) voted for the measure. Schwartz and the county’s other representatives opposed it.
The measure passed the Senate easily. After considerable debate, representatives in the House voted 33-26 Feb. 25 to send the measure to Gordon.