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Mark Newcomb Teton County Commissioner

Growth in Our Community

I keep wondering about growth. Growth is changing the community. Can we ever keep people from visiting here or moving here? What is special about this place that we seem to be losing? Our wildlife? How do we protect that? Our people? How do we preserve the hard-working and diverse population that made the community what it is? How do we ensure there are people here that really care, people to provide health care, education, public safety and volunteer services? Some of these folks are moving away… I don’t know how to think about it… Have we reached a point of no return?

I’m concerned about growth. Are you?

Let’s face it, property is worth the most in dollar terms without space for wildlife, without workforce housing, with a minimum of open space, with no obligation to address traffic impacts, and free of any encumbrance to protect historic character. But if dollar value is the only thing it’s about, then where are we headed as a community?

Unfettered growth won’t preserve essential wildlife habitat. Unfettered growth won’t solve workforce housing challenges. We can’t stop growth—there are plenty of empty lots waiting for a house, and there is plenty of commercial space waiting for a developer. We can zone to place a rough cap on overall development. And we have. Is that enough? What else can we do?

Guiding growth to address its impacts on our community needs thoughtful and experienced leadership. We need leadership that will craft policies that preserve community values. We need leadership to support public-private partnerships that catalyze the passion and talent of the private sector to protect those aspects of our community we hold most dear.

We need vision and leadership to understand that the community simply can’t grow and keep growing. Equally, we need vision and leadership to understand that protecting community character in the face of growth is no small challenge.

The magnitude of the challenge is beyond any one person’s ability to tackle. So most of all, we need leadership and vision that recognizes and celebrates your pride, passion and compassion and that welcomes your voice at the table. Please support my vision of a community that thoughtfully confronts growth and issues around growth, that recognizes the profound forces shaping our community and that, most importantly, keeps your voice at the table.

Your Pride, Your Passion, Your Compassion

With deep appreciation for your trust in me and with humble gratitude for the opportunity to continue serving you, I formally announce my candidacy for Teton County, Wyoming Board of County Commissioners.

It has been an honor and privilege to represent our community for the past three and a half years. We are an incredibly rich and vibrant community. We are justifiably proud of this place; we are passionate about it; and, perhaps most importantly, we are compassionate towards it and towards one another. Time and again over the past few years you’ve expressed your pride, passion and compassion on issue after issue, inspiring me to think carefully, deeply and deliberately about every topic we’ve faced as a board, every decision we’ve made, every vote we’ve taken.

My background is largely as a climbing guide, ski guide and avalanche course instructor. I’ve also worked as a groundskeeper, maintenance man, survey helper, table busser, laborer, and ski patrolman. I’m currently self-employed as a consultant in environmental economics. And I serve on the board of the Jackson Hole Wildlife Foundation and Jackson Hole Center for Global Affairs.

I studied Geology at Carleton College, Mandarin Chinese at Nanjing University and economics and finance at the University of Wyoming.

I’ve volunteered as a county planning commissioner twice–once from 2004 to 2006, and again from 2010 to 2015.

As the father of two boys at the Kelly Elementary School I care deeply about how today’s issues will impact the quality of life for generations to come.

In Teton County, tradeoffs between growth, housing, community character and conservation are acute. It is essential we ensure your input, trust your wisdom and engage your passion when making public policy. As your representative, my top priority is to bring your voice to the table.

Thank you,
Mark Newcomb

The Cost of Preserving and Protecting our Environment

This is the talk I gave at the latest 22 in 21 on January 18th, 2018:

What is the state of our jurisdiction? I’d characterize it as one of struggle, an epic struggle, with ourselves, to define the value of our natural environment. Without measures of value for the ecosystem and associated ecosystem services, I fear we cannot meaningfully address how to “preserve and protect the area’s ecosystem in order to ensure a healthy environment, community and economy for current and future generations,” our stated commitment in Teton County’s Comprehensive Plan. Should we, can we, put a dollar value on the area’s ecosystem, the area’s ecological amenities, the area’s open space, it’s wildlife, it’s life, it’s wildness?

To highlight this struggle, let me ask you this. Defining “the area” as Teton County, Wyoming, what is the dollar value for an intact, healthy, resilient ecosystem? If you’re like me, you don’t even know where to start.

Let’s dig in. Teton County has a bit over 4,000 square miles, or 2.7 million acres within its borders. Of that roughly 76,000 acres are privately owned. Of that, roughly 21,000 acres are under some sort of conservation easement to protect some combination of scenic, agricultural or wildlife values. The remaining 200 million or so acres are public lands, much of which are to be conserved mostly unimpaired for future generations. 45% of the county lies within Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks; 51% lies within the Bridger-Teton and Caribou-Targhee National Forests, including significant tracts of Big W Wilderness in the Teton, Jedediah Smith and Gros Ventre Wilderness areas. And about 1% lies within the National Elk Refuge.

All that public land harbors substantial wildlife populations. You likely know better than I. 10 or 15 thousand elk, a bunch of buffalo, five or six hundred grizzly, wolves, coyotes, a few scraggly moose (I guess I wouldn’t look so good either if I had to stand around outside all winter eating nothing but celery). While open space on private land, due to its valley-bottom location, tends to punch above its weight in per acre importance in supporting certain species, it’s the undeveloped public lands that by and large deliver the bulk of the ecosystem services we value. Undeveloped public land keeps our air clean—imagine if all of the county were private, how much air pollution would be trapped in our valley during winter inversions. Undeveloped public land by and large keeps our water clean—runoff from mountains on public land creates an underground river to constantly flush our groundwater ensuring it’s purity. Undeveloped public land by and large harbors the wildlife in populations our private land couldn’t otherwise sustain. And undeveloped public land by and large provides the bulk of our opportunities for recreation in all it’s modern forms.

So, taken as a whole, what is this area’s ecosystem and the ecosystem services it provides worth to you? It’s an estimate, at best. Hardly even educated. Am I wrong?

Contrast that estimate, if you even tried, with the value of private property and associated private property rights held on the remaining 3% of private lands. As of July 10, 2017, the State Assessor certified that the remaining private land in Teton County, Wyoming is valued at $15,222,990,853. That’s pretty precise.

Our inability to value ecosystem services, let alone place a value on our ecosystem as a whole, is clashing over and over again with a system of private property rights rooted in principles of individual and economic freedom tracing back to the Magna Carta. (Actually I throw that out just to sound erudite. I gather politicians cite the Magna Carta when trying to look informed about such things as personal freedoms. In fact, thanks to Wikipedia, I found out it was originally about the medieval relationship between the monarch and the barons and less about individual freedoms. Although if it IS about medieval power structures, then maybe it is becoming more relevant today than we might like to think.)

The clashes are big, over things like a proposal for building a couple hundred homes on ranch land south of town, and small, over things like an osprey nesting pole blocking a view corridor of Glory Bowl. They’ve included struggles to discern whether 40 acres entitled with six dwelling units and overlain by the Natural Resource Overlay should have to cluster those six units, or cluster three, or none. They’ve included clashes over whether events like wedding parties should be allowed on large rural properties, over where and how construction should be staged amidst development in a rapidly growing resort, over additions to houses located near streams and rivers, and over what amenities ski hills should be allowed to build and if their boundaries should be allowed to change. They’ve been over whether a man-made wave near a trashed stretch of Snake River levy is an appropriate recreational amenity, whether iconic historic structures should be re-purposed to house raptors, whether 21 rural acres should have seven homes or 68, and whether fences to protect hay fields should be allowed to impede elk movement. And I can assure you that each of these clashes has good people, often friends of mine, on both sides.

There are 75 or 80 pages of land development regulations that attempt to strike a balance between the exercise of property rights and the resulting impacts to the community. They lie in Article 5, titled Physical Development Standards Applicable in All Zones. They are onerous. The late Justice Scalia once wrote regarding the reduction, in Supreme Court jurisprudence, of the protections afforded to property rights, that “economic (my emphasis) rights are liberties: entitlements of individuals against the majority. When they are eliminated, no matter how desirable that elimination may be, liberty has been reduced.” I guarantee that these 80 pages of regs governing what you can and can’t do with your property were not requested by the property owners trying to exercise their property rights. They were requested by neighbors, neighbors expressing a diminishment of their rights to natural amenities such as viable and healthy wildlife populations, natural soundscapes, and scenic vistas. But rarely is there a dollar value attached to said diminishment of ecosystem services, to that one-more-cut in the death-by-a-thousand-cuts of our ecosystem.

The government response, to craft regulations in an effort to meaningfully protect our ecosystem, has been clumsy. As Ronald Reagan said, “The most feared nine words in the English language are ‘I’m with the Government, and I’m here to help.’” The regs crafted by me and the other commissioners are job security writ large. They leave the system open for constant testing, constant probing for loopholes, so that we commissioners, typically lay people, are forced to rule on even the most minute and arcane aspects of land use law. Expensive and time consuming appeals then leave it to the District Court judge and Wyoming State Supreme Court to clean up after us.

The system is arbitrary in that it is not rooted in any real analysis, let alone valuation, of the ecosystem services in question. It is arbitrary in that it can result in reasonable development being thwarted because the process is too onerous, or conversely for unreasonable development to be entitled because the cost to challenge it is too high, the pockets of the special interest behind it too deep. It is messy.

And in general, when it comes to these battles over whether any one of those development proposals cited above might incrementally diminish “the area’s ecosystem,” who do you think will win? The private property owner who can say with a relatively high level of precision exactly how much their property will be devalued by regulation or a blocked application? Or the community and their hand-waving claim that the proposed development impairs the environment and impacts the community? How can the community rightly claim that the impairment of the ecosystem and cost to the community outweighs the reduction in value of the private property when the community can’t even put a value on what they’re trying to protect?

So…could someone, quite possibly someone who lives here, who wanted to follow in John D. Rockefeller’s footsteps and extend Grand Teton National Park right down to the Lincoln County border, could that someone cut as many checks as there are property owners, amounting to $15 billion plus dollars, lock up the land and transfer it to the National Park Service, (likely over the dead bodies of the Lincoln County Commissioners)?

Ironically, the more that buyer bought up, the more valuable anything left over becomes…right? Because whatever is left behind is surrounded by that much more space, that much more wildlife, that much more wild, offering that much more opportunity to…you guessed it “Stay Wild.” In other words, everyone wants to live here, especially if no one else lives here.

You get my gist. Clearly there IS value to open space, to wildlife and to staying wild.

Alas, we keep developing, growing, incrementally reducing open space, diminishing wildlife habitat, suffocating the environment and extinguishing the Wild. Why? How? For what purpose?

Private gain, of course. Notably the economic rights referenced by Justice Scalia are measurable. Notably they are assignable and legally defensible, rooted in principles enshrined in the US Constitution. That ain’t changing anytime soon. And as public officials we are bound by oath to uphold the law. So long as we continue to develop within the myth that we are preserving and protecting the ecosystem, the remaining private property and the rights associated with the ownership of that property become ever more valuable.

Does that mean that saving our environment from ourselves boils down to…money?

We commissioners can regulate, arbitrate, split the baby only so much. I look now, towards you, private citizen. $15 billion. That’s what the State Assessor says. But what’s our community, our ecosystem, worth to you?

Commercial Growth and Its Housing Obligation

The local entrepreneurs I know are gritty, clever and not looking for a hand out. Fifty years ago starting any business here was a risky proposition. Air service was tenuous, winters were bitter, summers were mosquito infested, inflation and gas prices were headed for a spike.

Different times. Business risk now is about housing. Ask any business owner. Finding reliable, qualified staff that have housing is likely their number one challenge.

Some employers have taken the bull by the horns. Jackson Hole Mountain Resort is investing millions to house the employees it needs to run its extensive resort and retail services. So too is the hospital.

But too few developers and business owners have followed suit. Employers pay what the market will bear. And the labor market here includes many from places where wages and living standards are so much lower that jobs here are attractive, even if housing isn’t.

While an ever-increasing portion of the workforce squeezes into nooks and crannies or commutes from outside the county, job growth continues to snap back from the 2008/2009 recession at a torrid pace. Since the end of 2011 employment growth has averaged 3.6% year over year, and employment numbers at the end of 2016 were roughly 1,500 higher than at the pre-recession peak in 2007. At a 3.6% growth rate, employment would double 2011 numbers by 2031, if not sooner.

Meanwhile commercial developers are only required to mitigate the housing needed for a percentage of the peak-season employees their development generates. For a 1,000 sf restaurant, a developer must mitigate about $70,000 worth of housing, or the equivalent of 1.35 seasonal employees. Yet an employee generation study by Clarion Associates published in 2013 found that on average 1,000 sf of food and beverage space generated 3.91 full-time employees and 2.42 additional seasonal employees during the peak summer season (p. 55). In essence, 5 of the 6.33 employees generated by 1,000 sf of food service must house themselves. Or the community must publicly fund housing for them, which many consider a handout.

Proposed new rules obligate developers to fairly share the burden. On a downtown commercial lot that allows a three-story box, the developer could fill two floors with whatever mix of commercial development they think is most profitable, then provide housing on the third floor that roughly matches the need for housing generated by the commercial development. If extenuating circumstances don’t allow the housing to be built on site, the developer can pay an equivalent fee-in-lieu that would go into a housing fund to build workforce housing in a location and at a scale appropriate for the character of the neighborhood and the community.

Appropriate zoning incentives and low regulatory barriers on housing are important too. But the fundamental realignment of housing mitigation with the primary driver of housing need is long over-due.

Some feel fair mitigation requirements will stifle new development altogether. That fear needs a closer look. Developers charge what the market will bear, not what it costs to construct commercial space. Developers assess market demand for space and the ability for that space to generate revenue over a given time frame based on likely rates of return and how those returns stack up against alternative investments. The cost of mitigation alone does not at all determine whether or not the space is rentable. The market does. And the market in Teton County is booming.

Increasing mitigation requirements may raise rents and force businesses to absorb higher costs per square foot. But given the massive demand for goods and services in Teton County, I wager that gritty, determined business people are up to the task. They might do more with less and increase productivity per square foot. Or they might establish pricing power through quality, innovation and differentiation.

Prices for goods and services may rise. But I wager that many of the 3.5 million visitors will gladly pay a relatively high price for quality, whether for a finely-pulled espresso drink, a local micro-brew, a farm-to-table meal, a local craft, or a high-end service. And I wager that many of our local residents will gladly do the same.

Higher mitigation requirements will also ensure that the employees behind those products and services are housed. And then the biggest risk for business owners will no longer be finding employees with safe, secure housing. It will be putting out the best product they can. And that’s something, knowing the entrepreneurs I know, I’m not too worried about.

Taking Heat; Pain Free

Recently a constituent sent a letter to me at my public tetonwyo.org account:

Mark
I had seen you as a strong conservationist, someone with dedication and vision.
It seems that now what we are seeing is a very, very different person. Develop
Federal land alongside and in the bed of The Snake River, where your No vote
was just buying time to cut a deal with “stakeholders”. Develop Federal USFS
land for dense housing developments, pandering to housing “stakeholders”.

Our current version of a Sagebrush Rebel. But a lot of your supporters may rebel,
Mark.

Peter

My response:

Peter,
 
At some point in the past, my triple passions for skiing, mountains and the mysteries of snow led to a stint as a heli-ski guide. The mountains (Chugach in Alaska) were beautiful and vast. The skiing on good days was unparalleled. On bad days—well I’ve never skied saastrugi up to my knees outside of that terrain. The helis were a rush, but loud as hell.

For six days a week, 10 weeks a year, my job was to lead a small group of generally highly competent skiers down six, often more, avalanche slopes a day. On occasion a very low prior estimate of the probability that a slope would avalanche during a descent would quickly become exactly 100% that it WOULD avalanche once I was in the middle of the slope. Twice I was involved in situations that could have been quite dire, or “non-trivial,” as a mountain mentor, Renny Jackson, likes to say. My mis-read of the snow pack could have resulted in trauma, possibly death.
 
Putting my butt in harm’s way so a few people every week could get their skiing ya-ya’s, no matter how pristine the powder and no matter how gob-smacking the scenery seems ludicrous in hindsight. But when that’s how you bring home the bacon in what would otherwise be an off-season of pounding (crooked) nails, it seemed the highest and best use of my God-given abilities. And by far the more lucrative of the options.
 
Apparently I didn’t learn much. Now, trying to serve a community and citizenry I care deeply for, my butt again seems to be in harm’s way. At least on paper it appears to be getting shot at from several sides at once—kayakers who seem to think not having a wave to surf close to town will measurably hasten climate change, youth mentors who now seem to think I’m depriving our community’s youth of opportunities to interact with the river and, apparently conservationist(s) (or however you would like to refer to yourself) who think I sold them down the river.
 
However, versus my heli-ski days, there’s no pain involved. No trauma. No death.
 
This job, my commissioner job, I find not only every bit as mentally taxing as trying to understand the mysteries of snow, but far more satisfying. Even when, or maybe especially when, my butt is in harm’s way. Because no matter how bad a day I have as a commissioner, I’m walking away from it pain free, intact, alive, and knowing that I’ve tried something extremely challenging for an introspective geek most at home on some distant peak as far away from people as possible.
 
Thank you for keeping my job interesting. And though you’re off-base in your assessment of my position on the wave park, and though comparing me to a Sagebrush Rebel is a stretch (I’m pretty sure), the remarkable thing about remaining pain free is that I have no reason to not continue to consider you a friend.
 
Take care and enjoy all that our wonderful world has to offer.

Sincerely,
Mark

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