A state senator representing Teton County said Friday he has signed on to co-sponsor a bill that would strip counties of zoning authority over some private schools.
The bill would override Teton County’s rejection of a zoning-rule change that would have allowed a plan by the Jackson Hole Classical Academy to advance as proposed. The academy unsuccessfully sought a county-wide change to zoning rules.
“I just signed on as a co-sponsor,” Sen. Mike Gierau (D-Jackson) told WyoFile Friday morning. “Generally speaking, I support the bill.”
Gierau attended a legislative dinner hosted by the academy in Cheyenne on Thursday evening. The dinner drew what Gierau estimated were approximately 40 or more legislators who heard the development proposal by the academy. He is the first, and so far only, Teton County legislator to tell Wyofile he will co-sponsor the bill.
Gierau’s sponsorship declaration disappointed Teton County Commissioner Mark Newcomb.
“We have to have local control to make decisions that impact the future of our county and guide our growth and development to protect wildlife, our natural values and protect [property] rights and interests,” Newcomb said. “I will always pick local control.”
Newcomb oversaw days of testimony and debate over a zoning fight involving the classical academy. Teton commissioners refused to change county-wide zoning rules to allow the academy to build a structure larger than 10,000 square feet in the rural zone.
The proposed legislation, sponsored by Sen. Eli Bebout (R-Riverton) and others, would override that decision and remove some siting authority from counties statewide.
The academy, which is supported by Foster Friess and his family, seeks to build a new campus for the private school in an area of Teton County that is zoned for rural development and preservation. The campus would have 116,000 square feet of buildings. Two of the planned buildings exceed the current size limit for individual structures imposed by the county regulations in the rural zone.
“Everyone in the Friess family spoke,” Gierau said of the dinner. Foster Friess, a multi-millionaire whose philanthropic family foundation has more than $70 million in assets, supports the school. His daughter-in-law is head of the nonprofit academy. Friess ran unsuccessfully for governor in the 2018 GOP primary, and, through an aide, said he would use his statewide “platform and influence” to increase chances the state would weigh in to allow the campus to be built as proposed.
Gierau outlined the dinner presentation. “They talked about the school, about the issues … some of the issues in their view they’re facing in Teton County,” Gierau said. “I think what they’re doing is terrific as far as schools go.”
“I just signed on as a co-sponsor,” Gierau said. “Generally speaking, I support the bill.”
Bill would set bar at 35 acres
Senate File 49 County zoning authority–private schools, would prohibit counties from controlling the location, use or occupancy of private schools provided they are to be sited on at least 35 acres and enroll at least 50 students.
Gierau has supported local control and has said local zoning issues should not be decided in Cheyenne.
“I still believe that,” he said in a telephone interview Friday. “I believe it now more than ever. I feel this should not be brought up down here.
“If the [Teton] commission could get together and figure out a way to get this proposal approved, this would not be an issue.”
He elaborated. “‘Solve it’ means they could come to an accommodation,” Gierau said.
The classical academy could build its school at the proposed site under existing rules, but not the proposed gym or performing arts center each of which would be larger than 10,000 square feet. Commissioners and others have said the academy could build its campus on other available land that is zoned to allow buildings the sizes it seeks.
Gierau complained about the process Teton County went through in rejecting the proposed change to building sizes in the rural zone.
“The goal posts always move,” Gierau said.
Newcomb questioned that assertion.
“I would have to try and understand what he means about that,” the commissioner said. The only move the county has made, Newcomb said, was to change county-wide zoning rules to allow institutions in the rural zone, such as the proposed private school, to open at 7 a.m. instead of 9 a.m. That change came at the request of the classical academy.
“We made it easier to kick it through the goal line,” Newcomb said.
Teton County Commission Chairwoman Natalia Macker said she understood why there were conflicting views on the school plan. “We represent a diverse constituency,” she told WyoFile. “It’s no surprise there are differing opinions on the issue of this bill.”
Nevertheless, “I know all of the representative at the local and state level want to find the right solution,” she said.
Because both Gierau and Rep. Andy Schwartz, (D-Teton County) served in local government, Macker said she is reassured. “I’m confident in their support for local control,” she said. “It’s going to be an interesting ride.”