Counties grapple with zoning, liberties, as more seek Wyo hideouts

Sublette County commissioners’ rezoning to allow a 68-room luxury resort in what had been a rural hideaway of Bondurant is emblematic of development pressures challenging many Wyoming communities, raising questions about whether they are prepared, able and willing to address fast-approaching changes.

Spurred on by urban COVID-19 “refugees” and myriad other factors, some parts of the state find themselves pinched as visitors morph into property owners, accelerating real estate activity and new development.

In Park County, for example, a boom began in fiscal year 2019-’20 when subdivision permits jumped to 500% of the prior year, according to information from the planning office in Cody. Meanwhile, a code enforcement officer in Sweetwater County has been busy warning internet buyers of near-inaccessible Red Desert properties that may have roadblocks to development such as no utilities, services or even legal access.

Development in Park County was putting up “record-breaking numbers” before 2020 said Joy Hill, the county planner. “Then COVID hit,” she said.

“It just went crazy. Especially with subdivisions,” Hill said. “They want their little piece of paradise out in the county,” she said of buyers.

Whether newcomers are COVID-19 refugees or “whatever you want to call it — it’s changed the market and some of the perceptions of how we do things,” said Bob Budd, the head of the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust. Tasked to enhance wildlife habitats and the natural resource heritage of Wyoming, he and the trust see a fast-approaching train.

“The thing that is striking is the scale,” Budd said. “Subdivisions and habitat fragmentation are things we’re going to have to think about.”

Jerimiah Rieman, executive director of the Wyoming County Commissioners Association, sees development pressures that “seem to come in waves.” He’s not sure we’re on the crest of one now, but, “it certainly isn’t stopping.”

Facing that, “counties begin to wonder what their options and responsibilities are,” he said.

All 23 counties in Wyoming have adopted land-use or comprehensive plans, as allowed by Wyoming law, according to a survey done by Rieman’s association earlier this year and confirmed by WyoFile. These are separate from municipal ordinances that apply to developments in towns.

Counties may “regulate and restrict the location and use of buildings … structures and … lands,” the sweeping state law states.

But land-use or comprehensive plans are enforceable only after counties adopt zoning regulations. About half of the counties have zoned and regulated development across their entire jurisdictions; the others have only zoned parts.

A handful or fewer have no zoning rules, regulations that limit things like the location, type and size of developments, according to the April survey.

“Some counties are fiercely protective of the fact they haven’t adopted zoning regulations and they want to stay there,” Rieman said.

Trust Director Budd added: “We have the greatest amount of respect for property rights. That is an issue that isn’t going to change.”

In Goshen County, for example, there’s no comprehensive zoning, only some requirements addressing “confined animal feeding operations,” county planner Gary Childs said. “My understanding of history is it’s been brought up several times maybe in the last 40 or 50 years,” he said of zoning, “and hasn’t drawn support.”

The authors of a 2018 Wyoming planning overview outlined benefits of looking forward. “Communities are better situated to respond to changing needs by anticipating future conditions and making decisions to maximize the local economy and ensure a high quality of life,” William J. Gribb and Jeffrey D. Hamerlinck wrote. “A decision not to plan is itself a form of de facto planning.”

The presence of wildlife is synonymous with a high quality of life in much of Wyoming — a quality that the human footprint invariably alters. While there’s less empirical data from the time before radio and GPS tracking, it’s not difficult to see places wildlife avoid today.

“It’s clear that migrations don’t go through these really built-up areas,” said Matt Kauffman, leader of the Wyoming Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Unit at the University of Wyoming. “They kind of skirt around the town. You see the same thing in all of Wyoming’s small towns.

“Now we have good migration maps for the migrations around Jackson, Cokeville, Pinedale, Dubois, Cody,” he said. “That information sets the table for decision makers who can say ‘if we’re interested in continuing this, these are the areas we should limit development.’”

Budd sees a different type of Wyoming resident these days and an expanded footprint. Settlers used to seek water and shelter, like trees, when picking a place to build a cabin or house, he said.

“People now will live in places when, growing up, we never would have thought of,” he said. Meantime, the trust, with an annual budget of between $6 million and $8 million, finds itself swamped.

“There’s a lot of demand to do conservation in the state,” he said. In selecting projects, his agency asks “where can we prevent having a crisis 40 years down the road?

“We have a whole lot of Wyoming values wrapped up in the same bundle,” he said. Among those are agriculture and ranching, whose economic contributions are diminished when holdings are subdivided. “That makes these [issues] difficult.”

A new constituency that’s unfamiliar with those Wyoming values, or even its landscape, can give planners fits. In Sweetwater County, for example, officials have posted online a 10-page guide and warning about Red Desert property and what too-eager landowners might find.

“The elevation change on this parcel goes from 7,130 to 6,900 … a 230 foot drop!” the overview says of one tract the county uses as an example. “There is also a large drainage crossing the middle of the property leaving little room for development … IF you have legal access.”

On another page of the guide the county calculates that it could cost $1.4 million to build a road to another, isolated parcel. “And that figure does not account for engineering, easements, drainage, fill, excavation or culverts,” the website states.

In Park County, where planner Hill has seen building permits jump by 20% in the last year and small wastewater permits increase by 54%, the future has arrived. The county is revising its comprehensive plan and seeking to incorporate new wildlife migration information into the process.

“The face of Park County — we can expect it to change in the next decade,” she said. New arrivals bring new ideas.

“Sometimes they’re concerned there’s not more control,” Hill said, “whereas the locals think there’s too much regulation. I think the playing field is 50-50.”