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Addressing Excess Development Entitlements

Lessons Learned in Teton County, Idaho

Anna Trentadue

January 2013, English

While many large and small communities experienced the rollercoaster real estate bubble of the past decade, the explosive boom and then precipitous bust in Teton County, Idaho was unprecedented. With a population of approximately 10,000 residents, today there are almost as many vacant platted lots as there are people. This oversupply did not develop overnight, but evolved over time as a result of years of policies and decisions by multiple political administrations of County Commissioners. These policies and decisions included allowing landowners to choose their own zoning, the adoption of a weak comprehensive plan, and the passage of a Planned Unit Development ordinance which granted up to 1,900 percent housing density bonuses. Just as this supply of real estate inventory built up over time, it took years for land speculators and the general public to realize that the market had become flooded and respond accordingly.

In recent years, newer political administrations in Teton County have implemented policy changes, code amendments, and direct actions in an attempt to buffer the impacts of this crash as well as plan for a more stable future. Some of the policy changes, code amendments and actions include:

  • Adoption of a formalized Teton County development agreement template and passage of a policy for careful oversight of county contracts.
  • Adoption of development agreement extension request criteria.
  • Amendment of county development codes to prohibit pre-selling of lots and require sureties prior to plat recordation.
  • Development of a Geographic Information Systems (GIS) department and a system for better record keeping.
  • Adoption of the Teton County Fiscal Impacts Planning System.
  • Adoption of the Teton County incentivized replatting ordinance.
  • Development of a strategy, policies, and procedures for vacating plats.
  • Launching the Teton Valley 2020 comprehensive planning process.
  • Revision of Teton County’s zoning and development codes.

Some of these polices have been effective, others have not, while some outcomes remain to be seen. Teton County has already vacated four “paper plats” totaling 79 lots on 313 acres and more may soon be coming. A handful of developers have attempted to use the county’s incentivized replatting ordinance to scale back their derailed projects, lower infrastructure costs, and reduce the environmental impacts of their developments, but none have yet been approved by Teton County. This is due to the fact that these replat proposals have largely been attempts at “backdoor” extension requests whereby the developer tries to obtain the largest extension of time possible for completion of development infrastructure in exchange for minor reductions in the scale of the project.

Teton County has taken more initiative to deal head-on with its glut of real estate inventory than possibly any other rural community in the West. One of the toughest lessons learned through this effort has been that it is much harder to undo bad decisions than to make good decisions to begin with. In the case of land use, once development entitlements are approved and a plat is recorded, it is difficult and in some cases impossible to successfully untie the entitlement knot. One clear conclusion of this real estate melt down is that if a speculative development proposal does not have immediate commercial viability, it is best to avoid approving it in the first place.

It remains to be seen whether Teton Valley will forge a new future or continue the boom and bust cycles of the past. This is an election year, and two of the three county commissioner seats are hotly contested by candidates with divergent beliefs and approaches towards planning for growth. If the political will remains to adopt and enforce new zoning and development approaches, Teton County can take a hard-fought and significant first step toward building a new future.