Neighbor Mark Snell submitted this photograph of an elk herd in South Park to Teton County planners saying it shows “significant elk activity around the proposed building site,” of the Jackson Hole Classical Academy. (Teton County Planning Department)

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.

Ranch land in South Park, site of the proposed Jackson Hole Classical Academy, is largely zoned rural where the size of buildings is restricted. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr./WyoFile)

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.

Foster Friess (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

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.

Overreach claims

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.”

Sen. Eli Bebout. (Wyoming Legislature)

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.

County debate

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.

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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.

Angus M. Thuermer Jr.

Angus M. Thuermer Jr. is the natural resources reporter for WyoFile. He is a veteran Wyoming reporter and editor with more than 35 years experience in Wyoming. Contact him at angus@wyofile.com or (307)...

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  1. Rich Bloom: “The “opposition” is from the entire County – renters, middle class homeowners and yes some of the larger owners nearest the mega project that is out of place in a rural preservation subarea.”

    Rich:

    Thanks for the response.

    First issue:

    Obviously, there was never a vote on anything so there is no evidence that the “entire county” opposes anything. Either way, that is besides the point in regards to my comments because your talking points don’t address my comments.

    You are focusing on a rejection of county-wide changes to land-use regulations by county commissioners. That is not a rejection of the school’s building plans. It is a rejection of changes to county-wide land-use regulations only. That opposition is very different from the consideration of, and support of, the construction of a school if county-wide land-use regulations are not changed in the process.

    There is no evidence that the majority of residents in Teton County would oppose providing a variance to the school to develop the parcel in question. Obviously, the county tied its hands when it prevented itself from issuing variances. That’s why the school was forced to suggest changes to land-use policies which was the last thing they wanted to do. They acted in a fairly reasonable manner, IMO, to address community concerns; but again, changing land-use policies was nothing they wanted to do.

    Second issue:

    I seriously doubt that any working class residents would support anything “Friends of South Park” (school’s opponents) did if the working class realized that your efforts are directly involved in driving the working class out of the valley by driving up rents and preventing affordable housing developments in the county. Affordable home developments in South Park (area in question) have been shot down left and right. 3 Creek’s millionaires throw a fit if their 25 under-paid landscaping/greenskeeping visa workers try to live on 3 Creek property (3 Creek is a private golf course development owned by its homeowners). Now that the residents of South Park have their slice of paradise, they don’t want anyone else to get a slice if it’s near their property. That what this is all about.

    Third issue:

    You have failed to provide any evidence that any real harm would come to anybody, or the ecosystem, from the construction of a school with a gym on this parcel if it was able to receive a variance. However, you do ignore the very real harm your neighbors at 3 Creek did to the habitat. When South Park residents built their home they didn’t much care about disrupting view sheds or wildlife habitat.

    Forth issue:

    It is true that the JH Classical Academy has other site options — not near your home! There is no evidence that they are good locations for a school or affordable to the JHCA. The parcel in question is close to the majority of schools in Teton County. The question is why would you support the building of the school with a gym anywhere in the county if you feel a 30,000sf building is out-of-place in Teton County?

    Fifth issue:

    In regards to your comment about the proposed state bill giving private schools the same development opportunities as public schools: ….”Overriding local authority on land use matters is bad policy – and not respectful of the community”.

    I would say that respect for the community was taken away when the county stopped issuing variances. Local authority is lost when second homeowners who aren’t residents hide behind “Friends of South Park” to oppose our local private school’s expansion plans. Bad land-use policy favors the wealthy at the expense of the poor. Teton County suffers from too many newly-minted out-of-town NIMBYs who have for far too long gentrified our town into a private playground for themselves — the wealthy, mostly — and driven out long-time residents.

    The state bill is a reaction to people who look far more selfish than the JHCA. I will agree that a state bill is not an ideal solution to the problem at hand but the school’s backers clearly saw it as their only viable chance to save their school. Who can blame them? IMO, It would be better if the state forced counties to use a variance process.

    Last issue:

    As for the the 2012 Comprehensive Plan: it’s like a child’s desire for world peace and their opposition to war. Everyone has good intentions but the reality on the ground is often very different. Look at what happened to the Palisades Wilderness Study Area. People in Teton County came out of the woodwork to oppose making it wilderness. That caught political leaders and environmentalist totally off guard. They couldn’t believe anyone opposed wilderness in Teton County. That goes against the entire message of the 2012 Comprehensive Plan. If the working class knew that the 2012 Comprehensive Plan was going to drive up rents and drive them out of the valley, they would have opposed it. As with Trump’s election to president which caught most everyone off guard, the people who think they speak for the people don’t always know what the people really want or need.

    Unlike you Rich, I’m standing with the working class, the visa workers, the Latinos, the people who don’t own property. The people “Friends of South Park” would never stand up for if a questionable development was in their neighborhood, or if they were driven out of town by land-use policies, tax laws, and regulations that favor the wealthy.

    I try to speak for them, It just so happens a wealthy family supports the school but far more wealthy individuals oppose it.

    Who do you speak for?

  2. So, where does one find the list of financial donors/donations to state legislators campaigns?

    Certainly, those republicans in favor of a private religious school that would disrupt the rural character of a county not their own, thwart wildlife movement/habitat and override the wishes of a local community would NEVER be on the receiving end of the school supporters political largess. But, it might be interesting to see if they have been, are or will be….

    1. ….”So, where does one find the list of financial donors/donations to state legislators campaigns? …and local government officials?

      Fact is that both sides have fat cats fighting each other. Billions of dollars in wealth all together. Plenty of money supports those politicians opposed to the school.

      . …”thwart wildlife movement/habitat”

      The school wouldn’t disrupt wildlife or habitat. It’s a massive open space around the school. The school can still build on the property in question, just not a big gym.

      The people opposed to it at the nearby 3 Creek Ranch haze elk every single evening (outside of winter) to keep elk off their golf course. Sometimes driving them into the roadway. Unlike the school’s plans, they did build their development in prime wildlife habitat next to 3 creeks, forest land, and in open space. If you’re worried about wildlife, that is a bigger concern.

      …”Certainly, those republicans in favor of a private religious school that would disrupt the rural character of a county”

      No one is disrupting the rural character with this school on this property. Had they changed land-use regulations that might have occurred to a very small extent but most of our land in Teton County is under a conservation easement or locked up and under control of the government (97%). The idea that .0000001% that this school’s gym building represented is going to seriously change any rural character in Teton County is a misrepresentation of the facts.

      People are opposed to their view shed being blocked by a gym but they will still have their view shed blocked if the school sticks to its plan to build on the property but without the gym.

      …”override the wishes of a local community”

      There’s is no evidence that the majority of people in Teton County wishes anything. The squeaky wheel gets the greese and the rich neighbors are squeaking louder than the Friess Family/School. Ads in the paper by “Friends of South Park” outnumbered ads for the school by 20 to 1. There are far more wealthy people fighting the school than advocating for it because they hate the idea of any development anywhere near their property even if they can’t see it.

      There has been no vote. Perhaps there should be.

      Lastly, the problem is directly related to Teton County’s decision to get rid of the power to issue variances. They did so to protect the wealthy homeowners at the expense of everyone else. Had they had that power, Teton County could have approved the school’s development without changing the land-use policies elsewhere in the county. Not that they would have, but the school could have had the chance to propose a development without all the baggage the opponents used to scare the valley’s NIMBYs.

      Look at this map and tell me that a gym is going to have a big impact on our rural character if limited to the parcel in question. It doesn’t.

      https://maps.greenwoodmap.com/tetonwy/mapserver/map#zcr=3/2419054.4652777174/1416597.8394581247/0&lyrs=state_fed,conserv_esmnt,water,tojcorp,Roads,ownership,placelabels

      1. The Friess family – JH Classical Academy has other site options. The issue is the location, scale and scope of their mixed use mega project which neither aligns with current land development regulations (LDRs) – nor does it adhere to our Jackson/Teton County 2012 Comprehensive Plan. The Friess family is now using their wealth and power to attempt an end-run of our local process of review that has only just begun.

        Despite the post by Jose Garcia – the “opposition” is from the entire County – renters, middle class homeowners and yes some of the larger owners nearest the mega project that is out of place in a rural preservation subarea. The latest review – in a series of reviews still to occur – was January 3. On January 3 after five and a half hours of continued hearings, the County Commissioners soundly rejected (4-1) the JH Classical Academy’s proposed text amendment to the County Land Development Regulations, seeking to increase the allowable building size in rural areas from 10,000 to up to 30,000 SF.

        The maximum building size has been in place since 1994. The Academy’s requested change to the law was soundly rejected by the County’s own Planning Department, a unanimous County Planning Commission, the Alta Advisory Board, the JH Conservation Alliance, Save Historic Jackson Hole, numerous highly regarded former county commissioners, and the overwhelming majority of residents across the county from Alta to Hoback to Buffalo Valley.
        Why? Because a dramatic change in building size county-wide in rural areas would forever damage the character of those areas by fundamentally altering the bulk and density of buildings, substantially increasing the intensity of use and traffic, and blocking wildlife movement.
        The Commissioners demonstrated an abiding commitment to the 2012 Comprehensive Plan and the LDRs, which emphasize that growth should be directed away from rural areas and into our complete neighborhoods. And, here is another important fact.

        While the Academy stood before the Commissioners and the public January 3 seeking this change to local law, not a single one of its representatives mentioned the fact that the Academy and its founders have lobbied state legislators to put forward a bill in the Wyoming legislature to strip the County of all of its authority relating to the siting, development, and use of the proposed new school campus.

        Overriding local authority on land use matters is bad policy – and not respectful of the community.

  3. This does sound like a wealthy family, used to getting its own way, attempting to bully their desires into effect at the expense of everyone else. It is a bad precedent for Wyoming.