JACKSON – At the behest of the Foster Friess family, a powerful state senator will carry a bill to override local control of a private school development.
Last week the Teton County commissioners refused to change land-use rules to accommodate the Friess family’s proposed Jackson Hole Classical Academy campus in a rural zone south of Jackson.
Sen. Eli Bebout (R-Riverton), immediate past president of the Senate, is a principal sponsor of Senate File 49 that would prohibit counties from controlling the location, use or occupancy of private schools provided they’re to be situated on at least 35 acres and enroll at least 50 students.
Friess and members of his family launched and help fund the Jackson Hole Classical Academy in Jackson, a school with about 100 students that seeks to expand. Teton County commissioners on Thursday voted 4-1 to reject a request by a Friess-connected limited liability company to change zoning rules to allow the Jackson Hole Classical Academy to erect a larger structure than is currently allowed in an area zoned for rural preservation and development. Bebout filed his bill the week before the county’s decision.
Based on conversations with the Friess family, Bebout said he sees Teton County’s position on the proposed 245-student institution as “an overreach.” He characterized the request for 116,000 square feet of buildings — including two buildings that would exceed the rural zone’s 10,000 square-foot limit — as innocuous.
“It’s large home-schooling … just an escalation of home-schooling,” he told WyoFile in an interview.
Friess aide Bailey Shelbourne has said the philanthropist, Republican mega-donor and unsuccessful GOP gubernatorial candidate had a “platform and influence” that would increase chances of passing legislation that would allow the classical academy to be developed.
The Friess Family and JH Classical Academy are listed as sponsors of Gov. Mark Gordon’s inaugural ceremonies. Bebout, Sen. H.F. “Hank” Coe (R-Cody), former Teton County Rep. Clarene Law and Steve and Polly Friess have invited legislators and select others to a legislative dinner Thursday at the Grand Ballroom of Cheyenne’s Little America.
Following Thursday’s decision by Teton County commissioners not to amend county regulations, academy spokeswoman Kristin Walker said the group’s leadership “is reviewing all their options to move forward.” School leaders “are dedicated to solving their facility crisis for the families that depend on them,” she wrote in an email.
Government schools advantaged?
Five senators and six representatives, all Republicans, co-sponsor “County zoning authority-private schools.” No Democrats nor any legislators representing Teton County have signed on.
Co-sponsors are Sens. Wyatt Agar (R-Thermopolis), Brian Boner (R-Douglas), “Hank” Coe (R-Cody), Ogden Driskill (R-Devils Tower) and Cheri Steinmetz (R-Lingle) and Reps. Aaron Clausen (R-Douglas), Mike Greear (R-Worland), Tim Hallinan (R-Gillette), Tyler Lindholm (R-Sundance), David Miller (R-Riverton) and Tim Salazar (R-Dubois).
Foster Friess aide Shelbourne wrote in an email that he seeks legislation “allowing private schools to enjoy the less restrictive zoning of government schools.” Public schools are considered exempt from most county zoning regulations, according to a 1981 Wyoming Attorney General’s opinion. But they must comply with some zoning elements such as building codes, Teton County’s chief deputy civil attorney Keith Gingery told WyoFile in summarizing the opinion.
The doctrine of sovereign immunity and theory of preemption have guided legal decisions regarding public school authority, according to the opinion. The attorney general wrote that public school districts “are political subdivisions.”
As such, they are subject to voters’ will in the election of school board members. As political subdivisions they also fall under rules governing public meetings and records along with regulations regarding taxation. A political subdivision may accrue certain authority that may preempt regulations of other political subdivisions.
“Any government entity has some independence,” Gingery, a former Teton County representative and current school board trustee, said. The 1981 opinion cites several cases in other states.
“Public schools [are] state property held in trust by local school officials,” the 1981 opinion reads. “School districts which are political subdivisions…fix the location of public schools.”
For such political subdivisions, the argument proposes that school placement “is permitted without compliance with zoning laws,” Gingery said. There is general agreement, however, that such facilities do have to comply with building codes, requiring things like sprinklers, along with various other construction standards, he said.
In Teton County, “we would like them [political subdivisions] to comply with local rules, Gingery said. To set an example, county development proposals themselves “go through the process,” he said.
One former Teton County commissioner, Sandy Shuptrine, suggested the public and electoral elements were critical to public schools’ preferential siting authority. “Just because we label it [a] school does not mean it’s the same situation,” she told sitting commissioners of the difference between private and public entities.
The Jackson Hole Classical Academy is a private nonprofit. Its operators Steve and Polly Friess, the son and daughter-in-law of Foster and Lynn Friess, have created the limited liability company Owl Happenings to complete elements of campus development, including the purchase of land.
Owl Happenings has an option to purchase land in the rural zone south of Jackson from the Box L Ranch, according to a memorandum filed with the Teton County clerk. The memorandum refers to an agreement between the parties but lists no purchase price. School representatives have said they are seeking to acquire 80 acres in the South Park area of Jackson Hole for the school site.
Bebout told WyoFile the Teton County school issue came to his attention through its supporters. They “presented the facts,” which amounted to “a little overreach,” on the part of the county, he said.
The bill would be “a way to simplify the whole process,” he said, “for all the reasons that are good reasons — for the kids.”
Other than Senator-elect Mike Gierau (D-Jackson), Bebout said he had not talked to Teton County residents who are critics of placing the large facility in a rural zone. “I’m leaving that up to the people who are promoting it at this time,” he said.
Bebout said he’s “trying to be fair to all,” and find “some way to allow the school to move forward.”
School critics say the Jackson Hole Classical Academy should build on land that’s zoned to allow its proposed development. In Thursday’s county commission meeting, Chairman Mark Newcomb said such property exists.
“There are choices,” he told audience members while displaying a zoning map showing property that would allow the proposed development without changing land-use rules across the county. “They may be limited,” Newcomb said of the options, “but they exist.”
Pointing to parcels that could accommodate the academy he said some of them have been listed for sale. “You need a willing seller,” he said. “That does exist out there.”
Development on those lands “would be by-right,” meaning the rural-zone county rules limiting building size would not apply to projects such as the proposed school plan. In contrast, county zoning imposes “a very high level of natural resource protection on rural lands,” he said.
Bebout outlined his understanding of the issue. “I was under the assumption … whatever they tried to do they received roadblocks,” he said of school backers. “I’m trusting their judgement. What we want to provide those kids [is] the best school they can have.”
As for building at an alternative site the senator quipped “Yeah, they could move the school to Sublette County. They wouldn’t have the problem.”
Bebout, Friess consulted after primary
One of the state GOP platform planks says “the most effective, responsible, and responsive government is government that is closest to the People.”
“I’m a very strong proponent of that,” Bebout said. “I don’t like to get involved in your Teton County politics.”
Nevertheless, “We see a lot of times … there’s disagreement and the Legislature has to get involved.”
Bebout said he talked to Foster Friess after the Teton County resident lost in the Republican Primary. The Associated Press and Wyoming Tribune Eagle reported that Bebout convinced Friess not to run a write-in campaign in the general election that could have split the GOP vote and provided an opportunity for Democratic candidate Mary Throne.
The school issue, Bebout said, emerged on his radar only recently. “I believe it’s been at the most two months,” he said.
The Jackson Hole Classical Academy seeks a larger facility, operators say, because its lease is running out, it wants to educate more children, and wants to provide 11th and 12th grade instruction that it currently can’t offer.
Academy spokeswoman Walker, said in her statement that county commissioners on Thursday failed to address a “clear inconsistency” in their regulations. Namely, educational institutions are conditionally allowed in the rural zone but buildings are limited to 10,000 square feet — too small school backers say for the needed gym.
Commissioners and others disputed that interpretation. Limits were imposed to maintain rural character, they said, and would allow a variety of educational institutions, such as riding schools and so on.
Outgoing commissioner Smokey Rhea said commissioners crafted the rules deliberately and after endless hours of public input and negotiations. “It still hurts from time to time when I think about all those meetings,” she said.
Commission Chairman Newcomb sought to keep discussion at Thursday’s meeting on the rural zone regulations, not the benefits or shortcomings of the school plan. He was unsuccessful.
Lynn Friess spoke to commissioners Thursday and urged them to change zoning rules for the school. Part of her argument was that the 10,000-square-foot limit in rural zones — which Teton County defended successfully all the way to the Wyoming Supreme Court — was intended for residences only.
“Is it appropriate to equate a 10,000 square-foot home, built for possibly two people, with a safe gym for children in this community?” she asked commissioners. “Are you thinking about the future of the education in this valley factoring in the importance of a gym?
“Gym classes and sports — they are essential to education,” Friess continued. “They are a part of education and if in doubt talk to Alabama or Wisconsin that sports really aren’t important and ask if they need a teensy-weensy gym.”
She also addressed wildlife, since worries about elk and other animals were part of the rural zone discussion. “There are lots of elk and animals moving around through John Dodge [a subdivision] through golf courses, across [Highway] 22 and the road to Teton Village, all populated areas,” she said.
“Animals are everywhere,” Friess said. “I’ve got resident moose where I live and we have pretty much learned to adapt to one another.”
Academy spokeswoman Walker’s statement touted the proposed school development. “We as a community need more education options on the table, not fewer, and yesterday’s decision has far reaching implications for Teton County students, parents and families, her statement said.
For school critics, the implications of changing rules would extend to all county residents and to the millions of visitors who enjoy Jackson Hole scenery, wildlife and open rural character. “This proposal,” Geoff Gottlieb told commissioners, “is only going to benefit the family that owns the school.”
Some neighbors said the proposed school development would diminish their property values. Development of the school would be “to the detriment of homeowners,” Donna Hornbuckle told commissioners.