Billionaire politician Foster Friess and his family complain that they’ve faced “roadblock after roadblock” from Teton County in their effort to build a new private religious school outside of Jackson.
To hear Foster’s son Stephen tell it at a Senate Education Committee hearing Wednesday morning, the unbelievably wealthy family is being bullied and oppressed.
“We found spectacular differences in the burdens placed on private religious schools compared to the public schools,” Friess said. “We never imagined we would be before you trying to address the grave inequalities that face private schools.”
But of course this is nonsense. What actually happened was that Teton County officials told the Friess family their plans for the school facility—including a humongous gymnasium—violated well-establishing zoning and building ordinances.
So, like a child who’s told “No” by Mom and turns around to ask Dad instead, Friess is trying to circumvent the county’s decision by getting the Legislature to step in.
And it looks like Dad might just say “Yes.” The Senate Education Committee voted 4 – 0 yesterday to move forward Senate File 49, a bill that would override county control and grease the skids for Friess’ school.
The committee, however, did amend the bill, making its situation a bit complex.
Teton County is a tough place to build
A carload of Teton County residents made the long drive to testify against the bill.
Sen. Lynn Hutchings (R-Cheyenne) asked them how their county could be so “antagonistic” toward Friess’ school, the Jackson Hole Classical Academy, with all its mean “roadblocks.”
Jackson attorney Len Carlman explained that these so-called “roadblocks” were really the planning and zoning measures that face anyone trying to build in Jackson.
“If you buy a property that’s zoned one way and want to change it, those aren’t roadblocks—you’re asking for special privileges,” Carlman said.
“If you buy a property that’s zoned one way and want to change it, those aren’t roadblocks—you’re asking for special privileges.”
Only three percent of Teton County is available for private development, making space in and around Jackson tight. The area faces a housing crisis, and at the same time residents want to make sure development doesn’t harm their beloved local wildlife.
So, Teton County requires developers to incorporate things like conservation easements and housing into their plans. In fact, Teton County officials had already exempted the Friesses from several building and zoning requirements, including a housing rule that would have cost the family $16 million.
Jackson resident Sally Frese said developers often find themselves frustrated by the unique circumstances in the valley—but most figure out ways to work around them that don’t involve soliciting the Legislature.
“The school is not the first nor will it be the last to be frustrated by this predicament,” Frese said. “But for this one school with deep financial pockets and deep political ties, to use those advantages to ask for a change in county zoning statewide subverts local control.”
Unconstitutional “special legislation”
SF-49 was written to strip local control from Wyoming counties, “exempting private schools from county zoning authority.”
The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Eli Bebout (R-Riverton), admitted that since he’d brought the bill specifically on the Friess family’s behalf, it might violate the Wyoming constitution. “Special legislation” that benefits a single project is unconstitutional.
Over Bebout’s long history in the Legislature, several of his bills that became law were later challenged in the Wyoming Supreme Court, and he has lost each case.
But Bebout told the committee he thinks SF-49 is covered under the Wyoming Constitution’s stated right of all citizens to receive an education.
“To me there’s more pros than cons, so I think we’re OK,” he said.
Equal rigor goes into developing public schools
Proponents of SF-49 say the underlying problem that the bill addresses involves the different standards to which private and public schools in Wyoming are held.
For instance, if the Teton County School District wants to build a new school, it does not have to abide by the same rules regarding housing and conservation easements.
But Frese, the Jackson resident testifying against the bill, pointed out that public schools are subject to a rigorous hearing process required under state law, which involves public meetings, stakeholder input, and adherence to long-term development plans.
“Community concerns are usually addressed over many months or years,” Frese said. “As a result all public schools have been built in Teton County in areas zoned for their size and are accountable every step of the way.”
Glen Esnard, a member of the Teton County Planning Commission, said the bill will impact all Wyoming residents, “all for the sake of one school in one county with a wealthy benefactor.”
“We all know this bill is designed to allow the Classical Academy to be built.”
He reminded his fellow Republicans on the committee that their party platform states that the most responsible form of government is the one that’s closest to the people. “You can’t get any further away from Cheyenne than we are,” he said after making the 450-mile one-way trip to testify.
Peter Obermueller of the Wyoming County Commissioners Association said the group has not made a decision on the bill but likely will by next week. But he said “the language of the bill regarding the state’s authority [to bypass county zoning] is quite broad and quite troubling.”
The law, he said, might have more far-reaching consequences than its authors intend.
“We all know this bill is designed to allow the Classical Academy to be built,” Obermueller said. But if counties in general are stripped of their power to make zoning decisions when it comes to private schools, who knows what kind of wonky schools could pop up with no oversight around the rest of the state?
An unclear amendment
Sen. Chris Rothfuss (D-Laramie) successfully offered an amendment that would make all private schools subject to the same construction regulations for public schools.
“Honestly, I’m uncertain exactly how [the amendment] ends up playing out,” Rothfuss said after the meeting. “This simply puts them on equal standing as far as zoning takes place and leaves all else sort of in place.”
Asked if he expects county commissioners around the state to find his solution more palatable, Rothfuss said, “I think they’ll like it better. I don’t know if they like it.”
Esnard, the planning commissioner, said he believes the issue is far from over and that the Legislature has only seen “the tip of the iceberg” in the objections that were expressed Wednesday. He said, “Driving down here yesterday the four of us probably had five phone calls and 50 emails going back and forth” with Jackson residents opposed to the bill.”
The legislation now moves to the floor of the Senate for debate.