Luther's Expanded Q&A with Jackson Hole News & Guide
The following is an expanded version of Luther Propst's responses to questions posed by the Jackson Hole News & Guide to candidates for Teton County Commissioner.
What is or was your occupation, and how has it prepared you to be a county commissioner?
I have worked over 30 years to advance conservation and sustainable planning in mountain communities throughout the North American West.
Early on, I joined a national law firm representing landowners, local governments, and non-profit organizations in complex land use matters. Then I moved to World Wildlife Fund, where I helped communities protect wildlife as they grew.
In 1991, I established the Sonoran Institute and ran it for 21 years. There, I led a large and diverse staff and oversaw a complex budget. I used collaborative, community-based approaches to help communities realize their vision for the future. I earned a law degree and a master’s in regional planning.
My entire professional life has prepared me to deal with the challenges that face the Teton County commission.
Why are you running for county commissioner?
My career provides me with extensive experience that will help the commission make good decisions. My work around the country is coupled with a long history in Teton County.
In 1989, several Jackson residents (e.g. Len Carlman, Nancy Hoffman, Sandy Shuptrine, Mike Brennan) invited me to help organize and lead a community dialogue on growth and planning. Since then, I visited many times for work and fun, and to serve on the board of the Murie Center.
In 2008, Liz Storer and I moved here part-time and quickly made it our full-time home. I have served on the boards of the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, Center for Jackson Hole (i.e. SHIFTjh), and the Teton County Democratic Party.
I am running because this is a special place and I am eager to help make it even better.
What will you do as commissioner to make headway on our affordable housing shortage?
This complex challenge vexes growing communities across the country and around the world. We must encourage creative ideas and bold partnerships, and prepare to respond rapidly to opportunities, while maintaining a vision for a balance of jobs and workforce housing. There are no simple solutions; however, four principles should guide our efforts:
- Focus on both supply and demand. In 2017, Teton County experienced 3.5% job growth. At that rate, the number of jobs doubles in 20 years. The growth in the number of houses was 1.1%. That rate of growth – and that imbalance between the growth in jobs and affordable housing growth – is not sustainable and is contrary to my vision for Teton County. We should address both job growth and housing supply.
- Prioritize land use decisions that provide affordable housing, rather than land use changes that create new jobs.
- Foster housing partnerships among local governments, employers, landowners, lenders, and both private and non-profit housing developers.
- Provide reliable funding to house county employees, especially critical service providers (which helps retain county talent and improves the overall affordable housing market).
What is the first initiative you would work to put in action to ease traffic congestion?
Improve commuter bus service. My priority is to reduce congestion without adding more roads and lanes. Increasing the number of commuters who choose to ride the bus is:
- Most economical,
- Most consistent with protecting our community and neighborhoods,
- Most friendly to wildlife, and
- Most likely to reduce (rather than merely relocate) congestion.
I would significantly increase the number of daily bus runs from Teton and Star Valleys and make it more convenient to ride the bus. This requires:
- Buying new buses.
- Developing a transit center at Stilson that includes amenities that make it convenient to ride the bus, such as day care, Zipcar-type car rental, an all-weather place to wait, ski and bicycle lockers, secured parking for crew trucks.
- Building bus garages in Alpine and Driggs.
What would be your strategy to manage growth in Jackson Hole?
Change is inevitable and unpredictable. The key to managing land use in a growing community is not to try to stop growth, but instead to shape its characteristics and manage its impacts.
Some 20 years ago, I co-authored a book entitled Balancing Nature and Commerce in Gateway Communities (Island Press). The key is to balance competing priorities: wildlife, community character, housing, and prosperity.
Four principles will guide my strategy for striking this balance:
- We just can’t accommodate everyone who may want to move here.
- The 3.5% rate of growth we experienced in 2017 is too much.
- We should ensure that growth has the lightest realistic impact on wildlife and community character.
- Exporting our workforce housing to neighboring communities does not constitute good planning.
What does "private property rights" mean to you?
The Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects private property with this phrase: “nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation.” The Wyoming constitution includes similar protections.
Protected private property rights is a foundation of both freedom and prosperity. A free society requires that government respect this limitation on its power. The challenge that bedevils both the judiciary and local governments is how to strike a balance between protection for private property rights with the power of the state to regulate the use of land in order to protect the public health, safety, and general welfare.
Regardless of what courts decide about this balancing act, local land use decisions should always be thoughtful and fair.
What is the most important conservation issue facing Teton County?
John Muir wrote: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe."
With this thought in mind, rather than arbitrarily picking a single conservation issue as the most important, I suggest that our community should address a wide range of conservation and social issues.
We should address many priorities simultaneously and vigorously, striking a balance among competing needs and priorities. Paraphrasing Aldo Leopold, the key is to act as if our county and region is a community to which we all belong, rather than a commodity which we lease for the short term.
What can the county do to better support the Latino community, about 30% of the population?
The starting point is to listen to the Latino community and to strive to welcome, engage, and learn from them. Listening involves both formal surveys and personal conversations.
The Latino Resource Center commissioned a Latino Community Assessment, published in 2015, which includes a survey of Latino residents. The top priorities identified in the survey are: documentation and citizenship, housing, language, education, wages and income, and access to healthcare.
A local immigration law clinic would benefit Latinos, employers, and the entire community. This is a top priority that can be very beneficial at a modest cost.
Also, our community provides exemplary social services built upon both private and governmental support; this network warrants consistent funding and expansion to better meet the growing needs of our most vulnerable residents, including Latinos.
Rank the top three most pressing issues facing Teton County.
These local issues are fully and unconditionally intertwined. In my opinion, attempting to rank them undermines the integrated approach that is essential to improving our community.
If elected, I will focus on making realistic, politically attainable, tangible, and measurable progress – which is almost always incremental – toward addressing the diverse challenges we face. This requires balance and integrated thinking, rather than listing which issues are the most pressing.
With this mind, the most pressing challenge we face is that of building the leadership and political will to move forward in a positive direction on several priorities simultaneously.
What is your position on the lodging tax, a 2 percent tax on visitor stays in hotels? Explain.
I support renewing the lodging tax for two reasons: 1) the tax supports several critical public services; and 2) eliminating the tax will provide no relief from traffic, overcrowding or other factors that inconvenience us.
The lodging tax provides funds for START, pathways, fire/EMS, off-season events (e.g. SHIFT), and other critical public services. Promotion funded by the lodging tax is insignificant compared to other sources that market this region.
The state of Wyoming spends more than $6 million annually promoting tourism, mostly targeting northwest Wyoming and directing 90% of the funds to summer promotion. The federal government (i.e. Brand USA) and the private sector (e.g. national park concessioners) also spend millions marketing our region.
If we eliminate the lodging tax, we won’t reduce our problems, but we will reduce public services or shift the cost of services from visitors to local property owners and residents.
What are your priorities for transportation in Teton County?
Building new roads and expanding current roads would create negative and irreversible impacts on our community. Before doing so, we should exhaust other options to improve mobility. My priorities are:
- Expand commuter bus service from Teton and Star Valleys.
- Work with the National Park Service, Town of Jackson, Teton Village, and other partners to create convenient summer bus service between Jackson and Grand Teton NP.
- Develop transit centers at Stilson and south of town.
- Cooperate with WyDOT and others to improve the flow of traffic on local highways (e.g. replacing traffic signals with roundabouts, making other traffic management improvements). The reworking of the Y intersection is a good example of improving traffic flow without adding new lanes or roads.
- Consider building new roads and adding lanes only after we have exhausted other approaches that are more compatible with our comprehensive plan and local values.
What is your vision for the future of START?
We should enhance START to reduce congestion and protect community character. My priorities include:
- Expand and improve commuter bus service from Teton and Star Valleys.
- Develop an integrated transit plan with WyDOT, National Park Service, Town of Jackson, Teton Village, and other partners that creates a convenient summer bus service between Jackson, Stilson, and the major attractions in the park.
- Develop transit centers at Stilson and south of town. These centers should include amenities that maximize the convenience of riding the bus (e.g. day care, Zipcar-type car rental, ski and bicycle lockers, secure parking for crew trucks, an all-weather waiting area).
- Create seamless and efficient connections between commuter service and local bus routes.
- Use smaller buses to serve in-town routes.
- Establish convenient, timely, and reliable bus service to/from the airport.
How should START service be expanded?
My top priority is to expand and improve commuter bus service from Teton and Star Valleys. My second priority is to work with the National Park Service, Teton Village, and other partners to create an integrated transit program to provide convenient summer bus service between Jackson, Stilson, and major attractions in the park.
More than 125 transit systems operate within national parks around the country; they work well to reduce congestion, promote local economic prosperity, and improve the experience of visitors at Acadia, Zion, Denali and many other parks. A summer system can work here to reduce traffic congestion, improve the experience of our visitors, and help local businesses.
What is your position on the Tribal Trail Connector?
New roads and new lanes of traffic are seldom the answer to congestion. To quote Fred Kent, “If you plan cities for cars and traffic, you get cars and traffic. If you plan for people and places, you get people and places.”
Many studies document that new road construction only unleashes latent demand for driving: more road capacity leads to more traffic because driving becomes faster, easier and cheaper. We should exhaust two options before building new roads: 1) improve commuter bus service and extend summer bus service into the park; and 2) take tangible steps to improve traffic flow (e.g. replacing traffic signals with roundabouts).
In short, I oppose a “roads first” approach to transportation, including the Tribal Trails bypass, because high speed roads only increase traffic, subsidize sprawling development, increase wildlife road kill, and worsen congestion in the long term.
Full Disclosure: My home adjoins Tribal Trails.
What is your position on the East-West Connector, a proposed connector parallel to and south of South Park Loop Road?
The Comprehensive Plan identifies the first half-mile south of High School for future town-level density, making this area the primary site for projected new growth and an appropriate site for new affordable housing and other development.
This future neighborhood should connect to the existing Highway 89 South, which can accommodate increased traffic without adding more lanes or expanding the regional road network. I do not support a bypass that will bring increased traffic into the rural and low-density area along South Park Loop Road or create an expansion of the regional road network to serve valley-wide traffic.
What is your position on the North Bridge, a proposed connector between the airport and Teton Village?
The volume of traffic between the airport and Teton Village is greatly insufficient to justify a new road and bridge over the Snake River. A more legitimate objective for a North Bridge would be to divide the traffic that travels between Jackson and the Village; however, this objective would be the perfect example of relocating congestion with no overall long-term benefit.
The Integrated Transportation Plan demonstrated that the overall transportation system would not benefit from dividing the town – Village traffic. With the North Bridge, some of the Village traffic would join the long line of afternoon traffic that enters town from the park. This traffic already backs up to the Art Museum on summer afternoons.
A foreseeable unintended consequence of a North Bridge would create a bypass around town for traffic passing through Jackson Hole. This would dramatically increase traffic on highway 390.
What is your position on paving the rest of Spring Gulch Road?
Paving Spring Gulch Road may help traffic flow and improve the use of the valley’s existing road network without building new roads or lanes; however, I would need to see a comprehensive analysis of the costs and benefits for paving this stretch of road (e.g. whether paving with projected traffic volume would increase or reduce long-term maintenance costs, the impact of paving on water quality through run-off abatement and on air quality, the impact of increased traffic on working ranches and neighborhoods).
In any case, consideration of paving Spring Gulch Road should be accompanied by a redesign to ensure reasonable speeds and to function as a scenic parkway, rather than a bypass.
Do you agree with the community goal of housing 65 percent of the local workforce?
It is critical that we maintain a substantial resident workforce and the social and economic diversity that has long characterized Jackson Hole.
Workforce housing keeps our economy functioning, provides volunteers for our non-profit organizations, and sustains an important middle class that keeps Jackson Hole a whole community. It also improves the quality of life for the people who keep the community functioning.
The numerical goal provides a point of reference, admittedly somewhat arbitrary, but that allows us to measure progress, or lack of progress, in our important workforce housing efforts.
Who is responsible for providing affordable housing? Rank in order. Government. Free market developers. Employers.
Everyone benefits from affordable housing. Maintaining a reasonable amount of affordable housing should be a priority. We all have a joint and equally important role in making it happen.
A huge demand exists for affordable housing and if building it was profitable, free market developers would be doing so.
Government should minimize unwarranted obstacles, craft its regulations and development entitlement procedures to encourage opportunities for affordable housing, and do more to provide housing options for public employees.
It is unrealistic to expect employers to pay all their employees enough to enter our housing market, although more employers should follow the outstanding examples of several of their peers.
Forming partnerships across all segments of the community – including our excellent local non-profit housing providers – is essential in creating affordable housing.
Who should affordable housing be for?
a. critical service providers: Firemen, police, EMTs, etc.
b. Workers who can't afford a home.
C. Any residents who can't afford a home.
D. Employers should pay to house their own employees
All of the above depending upon the circumstances. The goal of our community should be to assist a diversity of the local workforce obtain housing as we seek to maintain the balance and wholeness of the community.
To advance the community’s health, safety, security, and overall welfare, it is most essential that our critical service providers are immediately available in times of crisis. Providing housing for them should be the highest priority.
The business community in Jackson Hole needs to be...
A. Fostered. We rely on it for our tourism based economy.
b. Curtailed. Too much commercial growth is hurting what makes this valley special.
c. Unfettered. That's not government's job.
Creating diverse, livable, sustainable, successful communities requires a balance among competing priorities: wildlife and environment, community, and economic prosperity.
Depending upon the circumstances, the business community needs to be fostered or curtailed, unfettered or regulated, praised or cajoled – it all depends upon the context. So my answer is all of the above.
What should be the priority in upcoming rezones of complete neighborhoods in the county, like Wilson and the Aspens?
A. Maintaining rural character and room for wildlife.
B. Adding density for workforce housing.
We should resist binary or ideological approaches to local land use decisions. Each neighborhood in the county is unique and each has unique needs and priorities, so the balance between rural character and workforce housing should be uniquely tailored to each individual neighborhood.
Rural character/wildlife and housing are both essential priorities county wide, but in specific neighborhoods, one of the priorities may take precedence. The county should reconcile these priorities through extensive public input, smart county-wide planning, and careful site planning.
Much can be done to mitigate the impacts of workforce housing by influencing the quantity, density, distribution, and characteristics of new workforce housing; however, new housing is not appropriate everywhere.
Teton County includes vast acreage of the Bridger-Teton National Forest (which constitutes about half of the land in the county), Grand Teton National Park, almost half of Yellowstone National Park, and the National Elk Refuge. These federal public lands are essential to the quality of life and economic prosperity in Teton County and they constitute a globally significant wildlife refuge.
These lands, and the wildlife and waters that these lands protect, are facing unprecedented assault. Teton County should be a strong partner with our friends and neighbors who do the challenging work of managing these public lands and wildlife.
If elected, I will ensure that Teton County is an active and effective voice for keeping our public lands in public hands and for protecting our lands, waters, and wildlife to benefit Teton County, Wyoming, and all Americans.