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.”


By Angus Thuermer