Having been born and raised in Teton County and staying to work here as a mountaineering professional, I’ve always known that our Teton County community is compassionate. Whether it’s donating to non-profits through Old Bill’s, pulling together in times of crisis like the Budge Slide, contributing time, land and funds to house local workers, or honoring a fallen soldier like Rylee McCollum, it’s clear this community has a big heart. So, at the close of the county commission meeting to determine whether the Stage Stop LLC’s application for a Conditional Use Permit (CUP) to use Legacy Lodge for employee housing should be approved or not, I was shocked to hear a scoffing laugh on the part of the applicant’s representative when I mentioned that senior assisted living remained a need for our community.

After an arduous discussion about whether the Legacy Lodge should be converted to employer-leased rental apartments, the commission votes were final. First, we voted yes that apartments were an OK use for the 50,000 sq ft facility, a question presented as an amendment to the Rafter J Planned Unit Development (PUD). Then we voted no, with a two-two tie, to the CUP that laid out the specifics of how the applicant planned to use the facility if it were converted to employee apartments. I voted yes on the former and no on the latter because I didn’t think the application sufficiently achieved the legal findings as an appropriate use in the specific location, a rural, single-family subdivision. I explained how I couldn’t make the findings based on Teton County regulations for a CUP. Then I added that our senior citizens deserve a place where they too can thrive, even when they need assistance to do so. At that the applicant’s representative scoffed.

Teton County, we’re more compassionate than that.

Yet, when it comes to our community vision for seniors, we’ve fallen short. Yes, we have a vibrant and exceptionally well run senior center. But that center meets the needs of a small slice of our seniors who are getting by for the most part without much assistance. Even at that it’s bursting at the seams. The closing of the Legacy Lodge only added to its burden, forcing it to expand home-care services to seniors who need assistance but choose to live on their own.

The lack of vision on how our community should meet the needs of seniors is glaring when one reviews the primary document reflecting our community vision, the Jackson/Teton County Comprehensive Plan, which doesn’t even mention including seniors in our efforts to protect our community’s quality of life. When that document was first drafted between 2010 and 2012 the Legacy Lodge and Senior Center were flourishing, and no one seemed to think that we should put language in the document to reflect the future needs of seniors. And when it comes to housing, other than allowing retirees to remain in the deed restricted housing they paid for and maintained over the years, we have never talked about public-private partnerships for senior assisted living facilities.

Fortunately, our land development regulations, which dictate where specific types of development can occur, include multiple zones in town where such facilities are allowed. But buying land for and building a brand-new facility would cost tens of millions of dollars. Options in the county are fewer because such uses are encouraged to site themselves closer to higher density development. But the one place in the county we know an assisted living facility worked and worked well was Rafter J where the Legacy Lodge and 400 neighboring homeowners lived in harmony for years.

Converting Legacy Lodge to apartments would require, at a minimum, retrofitting all 57 units with a full kitchen, including 220-volt outlets for stoves where there are currently none, and a substantial expansion of the parking lot. The improvements wouldn’t be cheap. Reviving it as an assisted living facility would hardly cost anything at all. Meanwhile the county is about to complete the neighborhood planning process for up to 2,000 new units on 225 acres just south of High School Road, ample opportunity for seasonal employee housing appropriately sited near services and transit.

Exploring whether it’s viable to resurrect Legacy Lodge as a place where seniors can find respite and assistance with basic needs should absolutely be part of the conversation before permanently converting it to residential apartments. And I know, as a community, we’re compassionate enough to have that conversation.