Teton County, Idaho contains some of the most beautiful, and ecologically important, lands in the Northern Rockies. Its landscape contains the Teton and Big Hole Mountains, the Teton River, farms, ranches, and the small communities of Driggs, Victor, and Tetonia. Teton Valley is a crucial part of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, containing critical wildlife habitat and corridors in both its public and private lands.
In the 1990s and 2000s, Teton County grew about as fast as any place in the West. Its population growth was the 12th fastest in the entire country, and its new home growth was the 6th fastest. Unfortunately, most of that real estate development spread into the countryside of the Teton Valley and the Teton River riparian corridor, and the foothills of the Teton and Big Hole mountain ranges. This growth has had significant impacts on the Valley’s wildlife habitat, views, farm and ranch lands, and water quality, as well as the fiscal health of the local government.
The Burden on Local Governments
In the late 2000s, the national real estate bust brought development to a near halt, leaving hundreds of subdivisions unfinished, almost 7,000 subdivision lots vacant, and the construction industry – once the leading job sector in the county – crippled. Clearly, real estate development in Teton County was largely speculative, and grew far faster than it should have. In fact, the supply of subdivision lots probably exceeds what would be needed for at least 75 years.
Unfinished subdivisions are not only a waste of land and a producer of weeds – they leave county taxpayers in a precarious situation. During the boom, state and county tax policies allowed tax revenues to grow, so the county could keep up with the service needs of the new development. Now that new development has stopped, tax revenues have plummeted, but the road plowing and repairing, fire protection, and law enforcement obligations of local governments have not.
Understanding What This All Means to Teton County
In partnership with the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy and Valley Advocates for Responsible Development (VARD), in the past few years the Sonoran Institute has performed a number of studies of the implications of stalled subdivisions in the county:
- An overview of failed and unsustainable subdivisions in Teton County.
- A legal framework for reshaping existing subdivision patterns in Idaho, Wyoming and Montana.
- A review of changing real estate markets in the Northern Rockies and the potential for conservation development.
- A Fiscal Impact Analysis report and a web-enabled Fiscal Impact System that will allow local officials to quickly assess the cost/benefit to taxpayers of proposed subdivisions.
Now, How Can We Use This Information?
With this new knowledge in hand, we are now working with local partners, and the owners of several stalled subdivisions in the county, to find ways to reduce the overhang of subdivision lots in the county, and minimize the fiscal liability to taxpayers. Perhaps more importantly, at the request of the Teton County Commissioners we are providing technical and financial assistance as the county creates a new comprehensive plan for growth, and a new economic development plan. We hope that with our assistance, the communities of this special place can chart a new a future that recognizes and protects the great value its unique, natural assets bring its people and its economy.
"This partnership effort in Teton County is... our first and leading local demonstration project for a West-wide effort to build the case – legal, financial, economic, social – for vacating or replatting poorly sited and poorly planned subdivisions. It’s an exciting project with implications for the southwestern portion of the Greater Yellowstone Region and for how land use planning and entitlement occurs throughout the West."
~ Luther Propst
Rural Idaho - 10 years later: Farms are Helping Rural Areas in Idaho Persevere
December 25, 2011 - Florence is one of thousands of rural Idahoans who have changed the way they live and work to adjust to the dramatic changes taking place in the past few decades. Ten years ago, the Idaho Statesman joined partners like the Spokesman Review in Spokane, the Post Register in Idaho Falls, the Lewiston Tribune and Idaho Public Television in a yearlong examination of Idaho’s troubled rural landscape. Read the full article here.
Sonoran Institute Awarded Grant to Reshape Development in Idaho
December 12, 2011 - The Cross Charitable Foundation has awarded a grant to the Sonoran Institute to setup a demonstration project focused on reshaping development patterns in Teton County, Idaho. Read the press release here.
Unfinished Zombie Housing Developments Haunt the Rural West
March 5, 2012 - The towering arrowhead peaks of Grand Teton National Park dominate the landscape, often given a heavenly alpenglow by the late-afternoon sunlight. Below them, national forest rolls down to the gentle Teton River Valley, laced by tributaries, expansive wetlands and habitat for an array of wildlife ranging from wolves to huge flocks of migrating sandhill cranes. The drive to Jackson takes only 45 minutes on the well-maintained highway over 8,431-foot Teton Pass. Back in 2003, the private land here -- the raw material for developers -- was far more abundant and cheaper than in Jackson. Nearly 200,000 acres of this rural county, amounting to 67 percent of it, was undeveloped farmland or otherwise privately owned. Read the full article from HIgh Country News.
Dancing with Zombies
September, 2010 – There are several million “zombie subdivisions” spread across the Intermountain West; subdivisions that are approved – but largely vacant. Teton County, Idaho finds itself at ground zero for zombie subdivisions. Click here to read Luther's Dispatch.