Impassioned crowd gathers at Jackson Fork Ranch rezone meeting


SUBLETTE COUNTY – Before hearing from a stalwart group of Hoback Basin residents who mainly oppose a Jackson Fork Ranch rezoning request at a crowded meeting Nov. 18, the owner’s agent Morgan Fischer offered “self-imposed conditions.”

This was Fischer’s second time before the Sublette County Planning & Zoning Board seeking recommended approval of a rezoning application to change 56 acres of Joe Ricketts’ ranch from “agricultural” to “recreational services” zoning, to build a 15-to-20-room resort lodge with eight guest cabins.

Last year, Fischer sought the board’s and Sublette County commissioners’ approval to rezone 43 acres for a 45-room luxury “resort” lodge and employee housing off Upper Hoback Road. Neither the board, 4-1, nor the commissioners, 3-2, approved it.

Last Thursday, the board voted, 3-2, to deny the rezone. The application is on commissioners’ Dec. 7 agenda.

With current ag zoning, Ricketts could request a conditional use permit for a traditional “guest ranch,” sell 35-acre parcels and/or maintain a livestock operation such as the current bison ranch. 

Fischer said if new resort employees with children affected the two-room Bondurant Elementary School, they would “promise to work with the school board” with any financial shortfall.

Board member Ken Marincik explained the state funds schools, not counties, and deputy county attorney Clay Melinkovich said a person can’t pay more taxes than are due.

Second, Fischer said, “Joe could subdivide into additional ranchettes.”

Other conditions were being “dark sky” certified, giving Sublette County veterans discounts, moving employee housing offsite, exceeding fire protection standards, installing a water cistern available to county firefighters if needed and pledging to “demolish the lodge” and keep the planned cabins “should Mr. Ricketts close.”

Fischer made more potential commitments during the four-and-a-half-hour meeting to placate opponents and to the P&Z board if it approved his request that night.

One call he made was to rewrite the county’s zoning district code. Numerous times he mentioned Ricketts’ private property rights, to which people responded he has existing property rights for agricultural uses.

Perhaps they were “confused by (his and Ricketts) the choice of the word ‘resort,’” Fischer said.

Jackson Fork Ranch’s new lodge and cabins would “not be a resort in the true sense of the word.”

It would offer a “true guest ranch experience, not a white-glove resort” by “providing activities that make ranching possible” as a classroom for guests to learn about “the bygone era that everybody in this room wants to preserve.”

As many as 98 guests could arrive every three days and the resort could host weddings and conferences.

Fischer felt he had productive discussions with many people around Bondurant about the proposed resort; even so he appeared willing to give some more ground, mainly with financial conditions.

Public comment

About 50 people sat in the Lovatt Room with another 30 on Zoom. Another 36 people from Bondurant and Hoback Ranches wrote letters opposing the request.

Chair Blake Greenhalgh asked commenters to take only three minutes and address questions and comments to the P&Z board, not to Fischer. The main point was to address whether or not the rezoning request met the county’s requirements, two being community benefits and needed services. Rick Melby of Bondurant spoke first, saying Ricketts’ absence was “an insult” and he is tired of sorting through junk mail addressed to him in “Little Jackson Hole, not Bondurant.”

Later, Fischer said Ricketts is not trying to change the community’s name, just adding a historical reference.

Commenter Dan Carter, a former environmental consultant, said wildlife would be at risk and “you totally left out air pollution and water pollution.”

Fischer referred to Kent Werlin of Biota Consulting, who prepared a 2020 natural resources analysis with a 2021 update before the P&Z meeting.

“A year and a half ago I spent a fair bit of time in the project area” after Fischer told him Sublette County doesn’t have a protocol for an NRA analysis, Werlin said. He reviewed other counties’ documents and focused on wildlife habitat. Wildlife might be disturbed by the resort but they would eventually get used to it or go around.

He wasn’t asked to look at air or water quality, which are standards required for federal land development, not private property, Werlin said. He would need experts for those.

Bondurant resident Dennis Siepp said to get back to rezoning criteria – public benefit, zoning conformity, property values and water availability.

Ricketts’ application said a water study would follow rezoning approval and if water was insufficient, the resort would not be built.

Marilyn Filkins said a luxury resort “does not fit in Bondurant” and predicted, “What happened up there (in Jackson Hole) will spill over down here.”

People with Teton County “22” plates already play in Hoback Basin, she said. “Land and air have been polluted in Jackson – now no one even wants to live there.”

The resort would disturb wildlife migrations corridors. “(Deer, elk and pronghorn) try to jump the buffalo fences and get hung up on them” or snagged on gates not left open.

“You’re out of time, Marilyn,” Greenhalgh said.

Precedent?

Fischer said Mike Jackson of Rio Verde Engineering would address water, necessary for a building permit.

“Are you going to give a rebuttal for every comment,” asked board member Chris Lacinak.

Fischer said, “I thought I could respond to them. … I would be willing to concede some time (with) answers so we can come to a consensus. It’s not going to be perfect but it’s going to be pretty damn close.”

Board member Pat Burroughs asked Greenhalgh if Fischer also needed to limit his time to three minutes.

“The applicant should have more time,” he said.

People on Zoom questioned if P&Z board members and Fischer took time to “deliberate on” the letters submitted.

“People who submitted letters want to make sure those voices are heard,” said Lisi Krall.

Greenhalgh said he read them but “a lot were the same letter except for the first page.”

Krall called that “an erroneous assumption to make” because each letter added personal thoughts. She also questioned the traffic study data, saying there was no baseline.

“First of all,” Marti Siepp said, “we have made our concerns known – we did this last year and we were very clear. I’m surprised you don’t know that people in Bondurant don’t want this.”

Kathy Harvey said Bondurant is “a very peaceful community. It’s only going to benefit one person. … He’s not going to turn our community into what he wants.”

Melissa Harrison of Bondurant acknowledged the “tough” situation and appreciated Fischer trying to reach out. She asked why Ricketts didn’t request a conditional use permit for a “dude ranch” on the agricultural property.

Dan Bailey of Upper Hoback Road said nothing much changed from 2020 asking for 43 acres for 45 rooms, to the current one asking for 56 acres and 88 guests, with six people per cabin, setting a precedent.

“What’s to stop the Little Jennie Ranch from having a resort, or the Campbells (Cattle Company)?” he said. “We don’t want to be a subdivision of Jackson.”

Responses

Jackson reported that the resort would not be visible from the post office or Upper Hoback Road after calculating the line of sight from several points. “Water availability is an issue,” he agreed. “Usually we wait for plan approval before we get (a study).”

Experts would do intense mapping and a solution might be storage cisterns similar to the Daniel Fire Station under construction: “It’s not totally known ay this point.”

Neighboring water-rights holders get their water from the Hoback River, Jackson said, “And (the resort) would use groundwater.” Dennis Seipp asked Jackson about powering the resort. Fischer said a three-phase power line would run from Ricketts’ property at Highway 191 to the guest ranch, bringing natural gas, power and fiber-optic also for neighbors.

Fischer said they were “under no obligation to perform a traffic study and it’s no longer a 56-room hotel.”

Jorgensen’s Brian Gray and Hayley Ruland said the traffic study was difficult because the county only counts Upper Hoback Road once a year; they supplemented that with their own counts and videos.

“Under 400 vehicle trips a day is a low-volume road,” Gray said. “With guests it’s still under 300 cars a day.”

County road supervisor Billy Pape told him the road could withstand 650 vehicles a day and we (projected at 247) to less than 400.”

Fischer said the board could “write in a condition that during construction and the years beyond” the ranch could pay for upgrades and repairs with a bond or letter of credit.

At one point, he said of Ricketts, “It’s clear people here don’t like him.”

“Not true,” replied many in the crowd. 

Support

Joanie Christie, executive director of the Sublette County Chamber of Commerce, said, “It is our mission to work on economic development.” She would support creating jobs so extended families have places to stay and work.

“I thought I was going to be the only skunk at a garden party,” Monty Nickerson said. “Natural gas is not here forever and the economy and jobs are important. Just because it’s change is not a reason to deny the applicant.”

JJ Butler spoke up for property rights – “If it’s going to happen, how can we make it the best?”

Pinedale businessman Andrew Zook said he’s applied for many permits and hoped board members would be objective “and make a judgment off the data requested.”

But Julie James, who years ago rode with Hoback Basin ranchers, said luxury resorts “require constant maintenance. At a luxury resort, people expect luxury, they expect perfection all the time. The Upper Hoback is already luxurious. Road maintenance, for heaven’s sake – cables and all going up the road to make this work, the infrastructure.”

Board questions

Tan noted that last winter the ranch opened an ice bar and fat tire bike and cross-country ski trails. “It was a kind of nice welcoming thing. What’s going to be there for the community?”

Fischer said he used the word “resort” earlier but a guest ranch on ag-zoned land would be closed to the public. “As a resort, anyone here can come and eat here, use the facilities.”

Burroughs spent “countless hours” reading regulations “and nowhere can I find that prohibits the public from participating in guest ranch facilities.”

Melinkovich said a dude ranch “guest” would be someone sleeping at the resort, agreeing the wording “is not super precise” but the public couldn’t come for a day.

Timeframe

Greenhalgh asked Fischer about timelines for design and construction.

“Joe intends to take at least a year to a year and a half just to design the look and feel, then take time to turn into plans for the first stage,” Fischer said, “Two to two-and-a-half years from the county’s vote.”

Around 10:30 p.m., Greenhalgh moved the meeting toward its finale. Lacinak tendered the motion to deny the application; Burroughs seconded it. Lacinak, Burroughs and Tan voted to deny it; Greenhalgh and a reluctant Marincik voted to recommend.

The Jackson Fork Ranch rezoning application next comes up Tuesday, Dec. 7, before Sublette County commissioners – two of whom attended the P&Z board meeting, Doug Vickrey and Dave Stephens. Commissioners’ approval or denial to rezone the ranch parcel will make or break the proposed resort.

For more information, contact Sublette County Planner Dennis Fornstrom at [email protected]

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