Guest column: The greatest threat to your property rights in Sublette County
The U.S. and Wyoming Constitutions grant the people of Sublette County property rights. Property rights thrive where there is clarity, certainty and enforcement. Where these things are weak or absent, property rights are lost.
Recent decisions related to planning and zoning (P&Z) matters in Sublette County have created a fog of war, caused a great deal of uncertainty and made a mockery of enforcement. These are signs of property rights being lost and the continuation of this pattern is the biggest threat there is to your property rights in Sublette County.
If you care about this, get involved in the drafting of the regulations, make your voice heard at P&Z and county commissioner meetings, and vote for County Commissioners that demonstrate their commitment to the Sublette County Comprehensive Plan and Zoning Regulations through their actions.
Care to know more details? Read on.
Property rights are fundamental to life, prosperity and freedom. They begin with the ownership over our own lives and labor, they extend into the intellectual property we create, and they include the physical property that we acquire, such as land and equipment.
The economic benefit of property is at its highest when property owners are able to determine the “best and highest” use of their property for themselves. Property rights and the associated economic benefits are only fully realized when rights of ownership are made extremely clear and equitably enforced.
In the absence of these things, there is a loss of prosperity and freedom.
The role that the United States Constitution and rule of law has played in securing property rights for its citizens has been a foundational element in the economic growth and prosperity of our country since its founding.
By contrast, countries where property rights are ambiguous and poorly enforced experience high degrees of conflict and negative economic implications as a result of the uncertainty created regarding the security of people’s investments in their property.
In this country, in this state, and in this county we are fortunate to have a very strong foundation in support of our property rights. However, recent decisions on planning and zoning matters have resulted in one lawsuit, one petition to appeal, public outcries and a great deal of general growing consternation and conflict. These serve as evidence of a tearing at the fabric between the Comprehensive Plan, the Zoning Regulations and enforcement.
There is a lack of clarity within our Zoning Regulations (aka the rules) that allows for planning and zoning outcomes (aka the enforcement mechanism) that violate the letter and spirit of the Comprehensive Plan (aka the vision created for Sublette County by the people of Sublette County).
And how does this hurt property rights, you might ask? Let’s examine further.
Contrary to the beliefs and wishes of some, property rights do not give you the right to do whatever you want with your property. They do give you the right to use your property to the “best and highest” use as determined by you, as long as it does not harm the health and safety of others and is not materially injurious to other property owners. Like freedom of speech, you have the right to say whatever you want, but our First Amendment doesn’t, for instance, protect a student who makes an obscene speech at a school-sponsored event.
In other words, these rights are not without limits that are put in place to protect others in the public.
So how do we, the citizens of Sublette County, as well as the officials charged with the responsibility for our county, make this work? Well, there are a few things we have in place to help us do this.
To start, we seek high-level alignment on what we think the best and highest uses are for the lands in our county. For this, we look to the Sublette County Comprehensive Plan which offers great vision and policies for what we collectively see as the best and highest uses for the lands in our county.
Next, we need to make things very clear so everyone knows what they can and cannot do with their property in order to avoid conflict and ensure the strength of property rights.
Enter the Sublette County Planning and Zoning Regulations and Maps that are intended to provide clear rules and authority that represent and support the Comprehensive Plan. As we all know, rules and laws are pointless if they aren’t enforced. For enforcement we have the Planning and Zoning Office, the Planning and Zoning Commission, the Board of County Commissioners and, in some cases, law enforcement. When all of these come together and work as they should, property rights thrive.
People invest their money and lives in Sublette County because they share the vision that is laid out in the Comprehensive Plan. Comprehensive plans are meant to communicate and guide how each county envisions its growth. If you’re saying to yourself, “No one reads the Comprehensive Plan before moving to Sublette County,” you’re most certainly right. But if the Comprehensive Plan is being implemented it should branch out into every part of the county and no ordinary person should have to read the Comprehensive Plan. It should be evident when spending any time at all in the county, when looking across the landscape as you drive through the county, when stopping at the Den for a meal on your way, when traveling from another county or state to go to the Sublette County Fair, when talking to people that live and work in the county. Someone should be able to feel and know what’s at the heart of the Comprehensive Plan without ever laying eyes on it. I know I did.
Landowners have made a decision to invest in this county, which has made its vision and rules very clear through the Comprehensive Plan and Zoning Regulations. Ninety-nine out of 100 people buy into the vision and rules and seek to put their property to its best and highest use within that framework.
Ambiguity in those rules opens the door for other people to misinterpret or get creative and try to exploit the lack of clarity, going against the Comprehensive Plan. If the system is working properly, in these scenarios these applications will be vetted and denied accordingly. If the system is not working properly, the ambiguity can lead to a distortion of the process that produces outcomes that go against the Comprehensive Plan and the Regulations.
If those 99 out 100 landowners are subjected to a series of decisions that seem to go against the regulations and Comprehensive Plan, it feels to those landowners like the system is broken and the vision and rules that they bought into are under threat.
Unpredictability, uncertainty and unknowns creep in and raise doubts about the integrity of the county’s Comprehensive Plan and regulations. This means that the investments that they have made to put their land to its best and highest use, which was bolstered by the certainty provided from the Comprehensive Plan and Zoning Regulations, is also under threat.
And the outcomes? Your tax dollars paying for lawsuits to defend planning and zoning decisions, outrage from the public and applicants, frustration and distress of public servants and most relevant to the focus of this article — a degradation of property rights and associated economic benefits.
The uncertainty about what you can or can’t do with your property. The unpredictability of what your neighbors can or can’t do with their property, which might negatively impact your ability to put your property to its best and highest use. The unknowns that exist for prospective buyers of your property and the negative impact that may have on your property’s valuation and purchase price.
So what can be done? It just so happens that the Zoning Regulations are currently being revised. There are public workshops focused on the revision of the regulations taking place now. Dates, times and agendas can be found here: https://www.sublettecountywy.gov/123/Planning-Zoning. Please join these meetings and/or submit written comments to give your input on how we can make the Regulations clearer and better in support the Comprehensive Plan. In addition to this, show up to meetings and submit written comments to the P&Z and county commissioners to make your voice heard. And finally, when it’s time to cast your vote for county commissioners, consider which candidates have a track record and commitment to acting and making decisions in support of the Comprehensive Plan and Zoning Regulations.
Please send your thoughts and comments to Chris Lacinak at [email protected].
The opinions expressed in this guest column are those of the author. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Sublette County Planning and Zoning Commission, Sublette County Board of County Commissioners, or Sublette County Planning and Zoning Office. The information provided in this series does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal advice.