Lawmakers’ override of local zoning rules sets a sad precedent


Of the more than 500 bills and resolutions that the Wyoming Legislature considered during the past session, Gov. Mark Gordon says it was a bill dealing with a private school in Jackson Hole that sparked the most letters and phone calls to his office.

At issue was Senate File 49, a bill that effectively was a rebuke of Teton County and its zoning regulations.

Leaders of the Jackson Hole Classical Academy said that commissioners there unreasonably prevented them from constructing a new school building south of Jackson. So, they took their concerns to the Wyoming Legislature.

Through an extensive lobbying effort, supporters of the bill argued that the school had gotten a raw deal from Teton County. Plus, they argued that removing the burdensome regulations is only fair, as public schools aren’t subject to the same kind of county oversight that the Jackson Hole Classical Academy was.

As Gov. Gordon asked rhetorically in a letter last week, “Does the fact that one is a public institution and the other a private one really matter if their requirements and placements are substantially similar?”

The pitch — which included other arguments — ultimately resonated with enough lawmakers. They passed SF 49 and exempted private schools like the academy from county planning and zoning regulations; despite having reservations about the bill, Gov. Gordon allowed it to become law without his signature last week. Construction on the new Jackson Hole Classical Academy can now move forward.

But while the academy will likely continue to be a fine school in its new location, we can’t help but wonder if this sets a precedent that state lawmakers will come to regret; aren’t these exactly the kind of disputes that are best resolved at the local level?

It is an understatement to say that Teton County is a bit different from the rest of the state; the restrictions placed on developments in the Jackson Hole area would likely raise hackles in most other parts of Wyoming — and, given the vote in the Legislature, apparently did.

But local control — which Gov. Gordon correctly referred to as “a bedrock conservative value” — is supposed to allow communities the freedom to do things differently. Basically, we allow other counties to do their own thing and, in return, we expect them to stay out of our business. It’s a principle worth defending — and Wyoming’s commissioners tried to do just that.

Although it’s safe to assume that most of the state’s county commissioners wouldn’t take Teton County’s more aggressive approach to planning and zoning, they overwhelmingly opposed Senate File 49. For one thing, the bill would prevent them from reviewing private schools that might pop up in their counties.

Some Park County commissioners were among those concerned.

“You get down there and you start talking to those legislators that are drinking the Kool-Aid, they’re so focused in on that it’s a school, that it’s a religious [school] and we’re harming the children,” Park County Commissioner Lee Livingston said last month, while debate raged on the bill. However, “it’s not about the school,” Livingston said. “It’s about the process: They [Jackson Hole Classical Academy leaders] didn’t like the outcome of the process.”

Rather than allowing the court system or local residents to deal with the issue — such as by perhaps electing a new board of commissioners — SF 49 short-circuited the process.

Getting the state Legislature to override a county decision you don’t like is, as Gordon put it last week, “the nuclear option.”

Although the governor described the bill as flawed, he allowed it to become law. While indicating that the legislation runs counter to his belief that government is best when it’s closest to the people, Gordon said he also believes government is best “when it governs least.”

In closing, Gordon wrote that he’s “committed to working with the county commissions, municipalities, the Legislature and the people of Wyoming to find a better way to resolve these sorts of conflicts.”

We hope Wyoming’s other elected officials and private citizens will share that commitment, because it’s a sad day when lawmakers in Cheyenne are the ones sorting out what’s effectively a zoning dispute.

As the governor suggested, it’s a lot better to resolve these kinds of spats at home.