This opinion piece was written and submitted by The Hoback Basin Coalition
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On December 7, the Sublette County Commissioners met to deliberate the Jackson Fork LLC’s application for a zoning change along a stretch of the Upper Hoback River Road. Virtually the same application had been turned down by the Planning and Zoning Board, and the County Commissioners on July 7, 2020. This time Jackson Fork LLC was more strategic in the timing of their application. The application was dated October 11, a time when many of the residents of Bondurant had left for the holiday season. Clearly, Jackson Fork LLC wanted to minimize the input from the residents. Despite the challenge, the residents of Bondurant united in opposing the zoning change, which would allow for a minimum of 44 rooms in a high-end resort along the Upper Hoback River Road. The opposition to the zoning change consisted of republicans, democrats, vaxxers, anti-vaxxers, environmentalists, ranchers, conservatives, and liberals. In other words, they represented a broad constituency united in their fight to hold the Planning and Zoning Board and the County Commissioners accountable to the Sublette County Comprehensive Plan and the Zoning and Development Regulations.
These citizens were concerned about the many negative externalities of the development, the lack of a good business plan for the development, its potential to be a revenue drain on Sublette County, and the deficient studies on traffic, water, access to labor, and affordable housing provided with the application. And they were concerned with the way the zoning change would begin to alter what is one of the most remarkable rural communities left in the United States and the wildlife that is supported therein. That development would move Bondurant away from its historic and customary land use and the community that surrounds it. It clearly did not have the welfare of the Sublette County residents in mind as these residents are positioned to shoulder the negative externalities from the development with few, if any, benefits.
Joe Ricketts attended the meeting in order to give the imprimatur of legitimacy. He claimed the development is necessary in order to maintain the financial viability of the ranch for his grandchildren. It is purportedly needed to supplement the income to run the ranch. How a bad business plan on the part of a billionaire will do that is unclear. It would seem that a diversified stock fund with the money Mr. Ricketts would spend on the project would surely secure the financial viability of that ranch in perpetuity for his grandchildren, and with a much greater contribution to his purported dedication to conservation. The Sublette County taxpayers will underwrite this project. Did the commissioners analyze for Sublette County, the income and expenses associated with this project? If they did, why weren’t these data provided at the meeting to assure the public, and if they didn’t do this analysis, it seems negligent.
Mr. Ricketts also claimed he wanted the development to provide an educational experience for people who desire to understand rural ranching life in Wyoming. I guess the assumption is that city dwellers from far and wide will spend thousands of dollars to ride a wagon around the buffalo ranch, have an hour lecture on Percheron horses, maybe have a barbeque or two, and do some fishing on the stretches of the Hoback River that run through the Ricketts ranch and are inaccessible to the public. All of the experiences Mr. Ricketts wants his guests to have are available under current zoning laws if his property is utilized as a dude ranch.
We don’t have the final tally of the letters in favor of the zoning change and those opposed, but we would like to get that tally for the public record. It is safe to say there was unanimous opposition to the zoning change based on the letters sent to the Planning and Zoning Board and the voices heard at the Sublette County Commissioners’ meeting. It is important that the residents of Sublette County understand a few salient facts about what happened at that meeting and in the time leading up to it. It should inform them about how important it is to vote for commissioners that actually think they owe something to their constituents, the facts, and the recommendation of the Planning and Zoning Board, rather than allegiance to the feudal lord of the Upper Hoback River.
The many residents that had a stake in the decision needed to be able to access the meeting virtually because of the timing of the application (some were no longer in Bondurant,) and because some residents were cautious about being exposed to Covid. The Planning and Zoning Board arranged for this to happen (that board voted against the zoning change). But the process of setting up a virtual link to the commissioners’ meeting seemed optional to at least one of the commissioners. Joel Bousman told us that it was not possible to arrange to access the meeting virtually because their IT person had passed away. Thus, in the time of Covid, and in the case of a decision that was strategically applied for when many residents were not there, we were told it would not be possible to gain remote access to one of the most important meetings of the Sublette County Commissioners in decades. What Joel Bousman should have said was this: “It is a requirement for public participation to have citizens access that meeting virtually, and I will see that it happens.” Had it not been for the work of Dave Stephens and most importantly, Doug Vickrey, two of the commissioners who clearly understood the necessity of public participation, the residents of Bondurant and Sublette County would have been faced with hiring their own IT person to access the meeting, or not gaining access to the meeting at all.
In the end we came to understand why some of the commissioners didn’t really want the residents to have access to the meeting. That would have meant there would be more accountability— accountability they wanted to avoid. Joe Ricketts didn’t show up to sway the commissioners, he showed up to lend an element of legitimacy to the vote of the three commissioners who were clearly preparing to violate the public trust in order to do his bidding. In the end, it actually didn’t matter whether the residents were there or not. It was clear to the people at the meeting that the die was cast before the meeting ever began. Three commissioners: Sam White, Joel Bousman, and Tom Noble, voted in favor of the zoning change and offered little to nothing by way of explaining how they could cast such a vote in the face of the many sound arguments, the sound reasoning, the unanimous opposition to the zoning change, the recommendation by the Planning and Zoning Board not to approve the zoning change, and in violation of essential aspects of the Sublette County Comprehensive Plan and the Zoning and Development Regulations. Honestly, those of us at the meeting felt we could have been political prisoners in Russia being tried for opposition to Putin’s political agenda. In that case, the facts wouldn’t matter. In this case, it didn’t matter what the citizens said, it didn’t matter the sound and reasoned arguments, it didn’t matter the unanimous opposition, nor the violation of important components of the institutional structure of decision making. None of it mattered.
We want Commissioners who voted for this zoning change to explain —according to Chapter 8, Section 2, Subsection D of the regulations– why they voted the way they voted. We want them to publicly defend their decision in published form in light of the opposition to it and the fact that they did not take the recommendation of the Planning and Zoning Board, and the fact that the rezoning violates many of the stated purposes of the Zoning and Development Regulations. In short, we want the Commissioners who voted in favor of granting this zoning change to be held accountable for this egregious violation of the public trust and the framework that is supposed to guide such decisions.
The Hoback Basin Coalition