SUBLETTE COUNTY – Some asked if the Sublette County Planning & Zoning Board should even consider the latest proposal from Jackson Fork Ranch – to enlarge its current smaller guest-ranch conditional use permit permit to cover all 1,300 acres along the Hoback River plus its latest purchase, the Dead Shot Ranch.
It was guaranteed to be a long meeting on Nov. 17 – but few anticipated it would end six hours later.
Although it was orderly, several hitches arose but the meeting proceeded as planned.
One was the “quorum plus” appearance of all five Sublette County commissioners – Joel Bousman, Tom Noble and Sam White, who voted “aye” for Jackson Fork Ranch owner Joe Ricketts’ previous controversial resort rezoning, and Doug Vickrey and Dave Stephens, who voted against it. Noble and White said they came to learn and listen. Vickrey and Stephens have attended nearly every P&Z board meeting.
Another was the decision to proceed with Ricketts’ conditional use permit application (CUP) in light of the legal challenge filed against the three “aye” voters rezoning vote. On Nov. 15, Bondurant citizens’ attorney Jim Lubing wrote to county commissioners, planning director Dennis Fornstrom and the P&Z board, pointing to that lawsuit and a new incomplete CUP applications.
Yet another was an emergency executive session, perhaps called legally but not on the agenda. But at 11:20 p.m., no one appeared challenge that either.
At the very end – midnight – Sublette County Deputy Attorney Clayton Melinkovich advised the P&Z board that under the circumstances, the board could only vote to approve or deny Ricketts’ latest endeavor.
Following protocol, the board voted separately on two findings. Was it suitable for a guest ranch? Board members Maike Tan, new chair Chris Lacinak and Pat Burroughs voted “nay.” Blake Greenhorn and Ken Marincic voted “aye.
On the second – if the CUP would be detrimental, Greenhalgh said he did not have sufficient information to decide, referring to changes and Ricketts’ agent Morgan Fischer’s ongoing negotiations throughout the meeting.
In the final motion to deny the CUP, all but Marincic voted to deny. It was now Friday morning and everyone left to light snowfall outside.
Resort rezone appeal
In December, Ricketts received the controversial majority approval, 3-2, from county commissioners to separate a 56-acre piece rezoned as a recreational services district for a destination luxury resort in the rural Hoback Basin about 35 miles southeast of Jackson.
Seven local residents filed a District Court petition for a judicial review of that decision, which scores of citizens opposed in public hearings and letters.
The north side of Upper Hoback Road, much of it managed by the Big Piney Ranger District of the Bridger-Teton National Forest, is open range for the Hoback Livestock Grazing Association, ranchers with summer grazing permits on the forest. Bondurant rancher Steve Robertson is another party in the resort-rezoning lawsuit with the same arguments against the guest ranch expansion.
Another plaintiff is Dan Bailey, whose family owns the westernmost 40 acres along the Hoback River and who spoke strongly against that resort rezoning and the new guest-ranch CUP on Thursday.
On Nov. 10, attorneys for the citizens, county and Ricketts made oral arguments before 7th District Judge Joshua Eames, who took them under advisement, with a decision “fairly soon.” Some asked, including Lacinak, if this Nov. 17 hearing should be delayed for “existing litigation” and the new applications’s lack of details and drawings.
Melinkovich said no stay was requested on the underlying resort decision and “being engaged in litigation doesn’t forfeit the right” for Ricketts to file another application.
Fornstrom determined the application was complete and his staff supported the new proposal. “Nothing of this exact nature” has been requested before, he said. Fornstrom gave one example of non-contiguous guest ranch parcels but said it isn’t usual.
So, the P&Z board considered Ricketts’ request to expand his guest ranch CUP from 439 acres to 1,300 and a maximum of 15 guests to 40 adults and 10 kids. The guest ranch would encompass the entire Jackson Fork Unit and the new Dead Shot Unit recently purchased from Judy Boeckmann.
The “units” are not contiguous as required but Fischer argued for convenience with the county’s Upper Hoback Road joining the two. Fischer argued that the Dead Shot has five short-term rentals (STR) that bring more people and traffic up and down the road. The county approved those STR permits in June. Fischer did not reply on their rental history.
In between are private holdings owned by people who moved there many years ago. One is P&Z board member Burroughs.
The CUP application contained no maps or plans of a proposed “dining pavilion,” an eight-bedroom guest cabin, water and septic systems and other required information.
Fischer described the dining pavilion as a place for customers to congregate and noted that new buildings’ locations had changed after talks with a neighbor.
“Morgan, I don’t like how you come and change what is drawn on a piece of paper – I don’t think it’s fair to the public or us,” Greenhalgh said.
Shuttles would transfer guests on that road between Dead Shot to the Jackson Fork Ranch, where they could enjoy all of the guest ranch amenities, Fischer said, and transport employees between the two.
Melinkovich said this proposal was “remarkably similar” to the resort rezoning, but the resort has be open to to the public and a guest ranch “dining pavilion” does not.
“If I was going to throw a dart, it would fall into the ‘resort’ area,” Tan said.
Fischer was questioned about “special events” for as many as 500 people onsite although only 50 guests could spend the night, with Ricketts’ resort and guest ranch put together.
“There’s a lot of question marks here for me,” Lacinak said. “It’s up to us to look at these factors. We’re trying to protect the property rights of everybody in the county.”
Crucial moose habitat
Wyoming Game and Fish’s Brandon Scurlock said the agency could only recommend private-property wildlife mitigation and while the ranch is not part of the larger nearby migration corridors, it falls within crucial year-round moose habitat. He would recommend wildlife-friendly fences and bear-proof containers.
Fischer made on-the-spot stipulations about numerous items not in the application, such as all wildlife-friendly fencing, which added to the board’s confusion.
“I’ve been on this board just a little over two years and during that time I’ve never been so frustrated,” Burroughs said. “We receive the application and documentation from the Planning and Zoning Office, study it, and then come here and Mr. Fischer gets up and begins negotiating to move buildings. The application is not complete and that’s a fact.”
Fischer decried the “small-town environment” he faced and said he would bring the same application “as is” to the county commissioners on Dec. 6. “It’s never made a difference in the final vote.”
Marincic stopped to ask P&Z staff and Fischer about “speculation” that “familiarity” created unfair outcomes in Ricketts’ favor.
He asked Fornstrom and assistant Tess Soll if they were “influenced by any familiarity” and they said no. Fischer said he never met with Fornstrom “outside of this room” and had visited county offices. Commissioners remained silent.
“There have been feelings there’s been an influence and I wanted to be sure that wasn’t the case,” Marincic said.
Around 11 p.m., Burroughs moved to table the application and refer it to the “committee of the whole” – the P&Z board – to study until Jan. 19, 20u23.
Melinkovich said the board couldn’t hold closed meetings but could request an outside agency’s review. Attorney John Graham, who represents Ricketts in the rezoning appeal, pointed out the board does not have investigatory powers.
Melinkovich called an executive session that ended at 11:49 p.m.; Burroughs withdrew her motion.
Two agenda items came before the Jackson Fork Ranch discussion. The first was a request to reconfigure a boundary between an owner’s two 10-acre lots in Jim Bridger Estates. The lots’ building envelopes were inconveniently placed for the owner, who could use the existing access.
The board approved the request unanimously.
The second agenda item was less simple – John Sulenta of Dry Wind LLC submitted a zoning change application for two agriculture parcels divided by Bridle Bit Lane, across Highway 191 from the Pinedale Airport. He asked to have one 26.34-acre lot zoned Rural Residential-20 for one home, and for the 17.86-acre parcel to be zoned Light Industrial (LI).
If supported, he had submitted a minor subdivision application.
Rio Verde engineer Mike Jackson explained there are already LI and Heavy Industrial lots by the airport. Sulenta did not attend and that counted against him when the board raised questions about his plans after getting the two rezoned.
However, several homeowners – Klief Guenther and Phil and Amy Belveal – said the LI zoning would create a dangerous junction with a lot of wildlife in the area. Pinedale Airport officials also warned about FAA restrictions. With five vacant LI and HI lots across the highway, Lacinak pointed out, there wasn’t an imminent need for more.
A rezoning application required the board to review criteria – “We don’t have the applicant,” Burroughs said. “How can we judge our findings if there’s no real true direction?”
Marincic moved to approve the rezone; he was the only “aye” vote with four nays.
Lacinak called for a break before moving to the third agenda item. At 7:25 p.m., the board and public reconvened to discuss the Jackson Fork Ranch application.