The Jackson Hole Classical Academy's Facebook page displays the many activities available to students at the private, nonprofit institution. (Jackson Hole Classical Academy/Facebook)

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.”

Mike Gierau

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.

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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.”

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. “Christian Academies” grew out of the integration of schools in the late 60s. They are well recognized code for segregating students based on racial and/or economic bases from the general community.

    1. It’s comments like this that are just plain offensive. What is your point? That the JHCA is a racist organization?

      The family that is financing the school has a very long track record of helping of all races, all incomes, all nationalities, etc. The have donated considerable wealth to help the less fortunate. These days, Catholic schools, non-denominational private schools, the Teton Science Schools, etc, are a valuable addition to our educational network. They all have faults, just as public schools do, but racism and classism isn’t their goal.

  2. Why is everyone so eager to curry favor with one losing gubernatorial candidate? Nearly 20,000 people were in desperate need of Medicaid expansion with broad support from all across industry, business, and social institutions. It was easy for the ;legislature to turn their backs on all of those people, but here we have at least 2 bills catering to one wealthy guy. What gives?

    1. Ms. Anderson,
      This bill benefits the community with over 43% of students receiving scholarships. Additionally, it supports the education of its nearly 120 children that attend. There are plenty of students at JHCA who have siblings at the public schools so the amount of families that are enriched by JHCA is enormous. Each child learns differently and choice in this valley is what our community needs.

  3. I am disappointed that Senator Giereau has co-sponsored SF49, which will impact local control of zoning decisions in ALL counties in WY. I sat in on several meetings of this particular school issue and did not see bias or over-reach in the denial of proposed changes to zoning regs. in Teton County. The decision did not ignore the merits of one private school, or the popularity (or political power) of it’s owners, but instead opted to uphold the Teton County Comprehensive Land Mgt. Plan, a guiding document created after many years of citizen involvement and strenuous debate. I applaud that decision.

    It’s true that WY public schools are not subject to county zoning requirements, but they are also funded and overseen by the state (i.e. public), subject to many requirements not imposed on private institutions.

    i hope other WY legislators seriously consider what SF49 might mean for local control of land use and regulations in their counties.

    1. There is no local control by residents of land-use issues when the county prevents residents from considering our unique future needs as they arise through a variance process. The only way to address future needs, currently, is by changing land-use policies county wide for every parcel in order to permit development on one parcel. That is the issue. No one with the school wanted to do that but that is what they were required to do by county rules. The parcel in questioned was zoned for schools. It just so happens that a real school could never be built on the parcel if it was a private school.

      Public schools should have greater oversight because taxpayers are paying for public schools. Local politics influence curriculum at public schools. They should not influence private schools in that regard. When it comes to land development, our laws should not favor one over the other. That is the injustice being corrected.

  4. School choice is a good thing – it often creates competition and raises the bar for educational delivery and student achievement. Teton County already has two strong private schools, (pre-k to 12 Journeys School, and grades 9-12 Community School), a distinguished public high school, and an outstanding alternative public high school. Adding another choice, through the “Classical Academy,” is fine too. If the market can support all these enterprises, good for them, good for everyone. School choice isn’t the issue here; we already have plenty of that. More schools, including schools that help students with special needs, are welcome.

    Special interest statewide legislation to give a Teton County land use applicant via legislation what was not rightly to be had through normal, fair, and open local procedures is unwelcome micromanagement from afar. We have robust local elections in Jackson Hole (80.8% voter turnout last November!), our board of commissioners follows due process, and if any legal errors get made in reviewing land use proposals there is always judicial recourse. The playing field is level. The Classical Academy applicant wanted to put their school in a place that we’ve identified for its rural character. The Academy’s wished-for suite of buildings didn’t fit in the established rules for that zone so they asked the county commissioners to change the rules. The request for the rule change was theirs to make – no problem with that. But just because someone wants to change rules built for everyone to suit themselves doesn’t mean they are entitled to get what they want.

    The 10,000 sq.ft. cap has applied since 1994 to institutional buildings as well as residential. Former Commissioner Vogelheim knows that. The private school developers can still submit an application that conforms to the same rules that everyone else has to abide by. Nothing is stopping them from doing that. Or they can find a properly zoned parcel which has already been identified.

    Our local Comprehensive Plan and its zoning rules allow for lots of different kinds of development, but they don’t allow big institutional development in our Rural zones. There’s good reason for that. Rural areas are open lands and low development density. They are quiet, often agricultural and wildlife oriented places. (BTW, property values in Rural zones are astronomically high, so it’s not like the Rural landowners are without highly productive economic options.). The decisions that led to the distribution of different kinds of land use zones in Jackson Hole are by-products of forty years of wrangling over land use planning and public decision-making. That wrangling included election after election where candidates with all manner of views on planning questions offered themselves to the voters. The fact that former commissioner Vogelheim was out-voted 4-1 on the Classical Academy’s proposed changes the rules for the Rural zone is a natural reflection of the will of the people. An end-run around well-grounded, lawful, public, vibrant local political and administrative processes through a Hail Mary pass to Wyoming’s State Legislators invites all manner of additional mischief when every other party who doesn’t get the local result they want goes running to Cheyenne for legislative micromanagement. SF49 is a bad idea.

    Len Carlman
    40-year Teton County resident
    Father of two Jackson Hole natives who received good educations here

    1. Mr. Carlman, I think it would be best for full disclosure that you are “Chief Philanthropy Officer at Teton Science Schools.” Please support JHCA like I would for the Teton Science Schools. I see you also work with Andy Salter and Rich Bloom through the Raptor Center, They are the leading opposition of this group and they do not represent the community. Andy Salter is getting paid to rally his friends or co-workers or seasonal neighbors who live at 3 Creek to write letters and show up at meetings when the rest of the community has to work and take kids to school, Two members of the opposition live primarily in a house over 13,000 square feet with a basketball court in Connecticut, just outside of NYC. They have a part-time mansion in 3 Creek just across the street from the site that IS zoned for schools where JHCA wants to be built. This couple actually wrote the commissioners urging commissioners not to vote to raise the building size beyond 10,000 square feet for a gymnasium for the school. How can the opposition truly say this is to protect the wildlife when the carbon footprint of this group is astronomical? I read Mark Newcomb said it would cost the county $15 billion to buy up the rest of the available land in the valley so nothing more can be built. If this is the goal of the county then they need private help. Why would they ever oppose a project that wouldn’t cost the county a penny and preserve 90% of the acreage for conservation? I wish this opposition group would get to know us as I feel the real reason is more personal and that’s not fair to the children who are getting a wonderful education at JHCA.

      1. Hello Meredith,

        Len Carlman has not worked for the Teton Science Schools for at least six years.

        Respectfully,

        Chris Agnew

    2. What was rejected at the local level wasn’t the school’s plan for a school. The county rejected the idea of changing land-use regulations for every parcel in the county. That was the right choice. The wrong choice was tying the hands of locals by getting rid of the ability to be flexible with future needs as they arise vis-à-vis the use of variances. Instead, we hide behind the Comp Plan and regulations which enrich and favor the wealthy to a far greater degree than, and often at the expense of, everyone else.

      The issue isn’t about local control because there really isn’t any ability to address unique needs currently.

      The issue is about leveling the playing field for private schools. Schools are allowed to be developed on the parcel, just not a school with all the features of a real school unless it is a public school.

  5. I support Senate file 49 and appreciate Sen. Mike Gierau co-sponsoring it.

    As a commissioner, I argued to amend our LDRs so that the Classical Academy’s CUP application could be heard….I amended their ask of 30K (sq. ft.) and offered 15K (sq. ft.) for maximum building size but lost 4 to 1 in the final vote.. We allow schools as a use in the Teton County rural zone….but we currently are not very pragmatic using a residential cap (10K sq. ft.) which does not make sense for some school buildings like a gym..

    I’m a huge fan of education options for our kids, so I’d like to encourage more private schools in our community—especially for kids with special needs. Our Teton County LDRs do not apply to public schools, so a this point lets treat private schools the same way and have them on a level playing field.
    Paul Vogelheim
    Past Teton County Commissioner

    1. Paul,
      Support for education is not the issue here. The issue is to preserve our community’s vision of how and where we want our community to grow and to be consistent with the plans that many of us spent many hours to develop. As Commissioner Newcomb remarked -“There are other options”. Your vote as a lame duck to change the hours of operations in Rural Zones was totally inappropriate. The two issues should have been decided by the new Board.

      1. Mr. Sibson,
        To say “there are other options” isn’t the job of the commissioners. This rural zone allows for a school and this where the school wants to be built.