Jackson Fork Ranch approved for rezoning by commissioners

Joy Ufford photos

SUBLETTE COUNTY – After hours of public comments, dozens of letters, phone calls and emails and standing-room-only crowds concerned about Jackson Fork Ranch’s rezoning request for a resort in the Hoback Basin, Sublette County Commissioners determined Tuesday, 3-2, that their majority approval was in everyone’s best interests.

Jackson Fork Ranch owner Joe Ricketts and agent Morgan Fischer attended the Dec. 7 meeting to speak in a two-hour slot set aside for them, commissioners and the public. Jackson Fork Ranch is on the rural dirt Upper Hoback Road near Bondurant in the Hoback Basin at the county’s northern end. Closer to Jackson than Pinedale, Bondurant and Hoback Basin has long been considered a gateway to Jackson Hole’s overflow.

Rezoning even the 56 acres of remote agricultural ranchland for a recreational-services resort could set a precedent that some fear paves the way to crack the small community’s fragile shell open to impending development.

Stick to the plan

Commission chair Joel Bousman informed 80 to 100 people in the Pinedale Library’s Lovatt Room and 65 to 80 online that they, and commenters, must “stick to” the county’s comprehensive plan and rezoning criteria. However, only one of the five commissioners voting on Ricketts’ rezoning request referred to them in his vote. That was Commissioner Doug Vickrey, who opposed it, as did Dave Stephens.

Ayes came from Bousman, Tom Noble – who voted against approval last year – and Sam White. They did not explain their votes to an audience shocked into silence. That lack of explanation has angered some residents, who believe the vote was prearranged.

Some supporters, including businesspeople, were also silent after the vote but later joined Ricketts and Fischer for handshakes in the library’s darkened hallway.

Viable heritage

Ricketts unexpectedly joined Fischer, who was asked why Ricketts didn’t attend a similar 2020 resort-rezoning process or the Sublette County Planning & Zoning Board’s Nov. 18 meeting. Ricketts told commissioners, at 80 years old, he wanted to pass a viable heritage on to his 14 grandchildren and the proposed 15- to 20-room resort and eight cabins would sustain that legacy.

He also wants guests to understand and experience his rural lifestyle at Jackson Fork Ranch, while raising bison and registered Percheron draft horses, he said.

Bousman, who voted to approve the 2020 request, did the same this week, saying Sublette County ranchers need to make a living and that Ricketts’ “guest-ranch experience” is an opportunity to teach the public about the rural lifestyle and issues such as public lands grazing. 

P&Z Board

On Nov. 18, the Planning & Zoning Board followed a similar exercise and voted, 3-2, against recommending Ricketts’ rezoning request. Chair Blake Greenhalgh, who voted to recommend approval last year and last month, was joined by board member Ken Marincic in approval. Members Chris Lacinak, Pat Burroughs and Maike Tan voted to deny its recommendation, making denial their majority vote. Lacinak based his denial on his Jackson Fork Ranch, LLC, Application Analysis, he said, and provided it to commissioners as such.

“The P&Z and county commissioners are instructed to consider 10 findings in evaluating an application for a zoning district boundary change,” it reads. The analysis found seven items were “unfavorable,” one “not applicable,” two “unknown without more information.” None were favorable. 

Set the stage

Bousman outlined how the two-hour discussion would unfold – first P&Z staff, in this case assistant Alan Huston, would introduce the project. Commissioners would ask any questions of the “project proponents” and citizens could comment with a 3-minute limit.

After 20 minutes, Ricketts and Fischer would answer any other questions and Bousman would entertain new comments “not talked about related to the 10 items.”

“We have the comments from the (Nov. 18 P&Z) board meeting and numerous emails,” Bousman said. “We know what the general sentiment is. There’s not much value to hearing the same thing over and over again.”

The commissioners’ job that night, Bousman said, “is to make this decision according to the 10 ‘considerations’ (outlined in the zoning application).”

Ricketts said his family has property all over the world but Jackson Fork Ranch is his legacy. He described donating millions to help a nonprofit buy out PXP oil and gas leases near his ranch and to Trout Unlimited; his conservation foundation restored swans and loons to streams in the greater Yellowstone area and he leads a 10-year Monument Ridge project studying effects of the Roosevelt Fire on the local ecosystem.

He envisions his ranch at the heart of the resort, he told commissioners. To enjoy the ranch’s natural beauty, “Tourists need to come and pay us high dollars. I don’t think it’s going to change (Bondurant) very significantly.”

White asked if they would give preference to local contractors – “Absolutely,” Ricketts said.

Fischer offered two of eight “self-imposed conditions” offered at the previous P&Z board meeting. “The planning and zoning board did not entertain me on any of them.”

Lacinak said the sweeteners “did not move the needle” and therefore were not discussed.

Bousman and White asked for an outline, and after a short discussion Fischer and Ricketts added them to the pot. Bousman and White asked about a Wyoming Game and Fish recommendation to mitigate against mule deer disturbances during construction but no one had that letter and no one from Game and Fish was present to answer.

Fischer said if seasonal construction restrictions are necessary, “We would abide by it.”

Ricketts is willing to “incentivize” employees to become trained volunteer firefighters, he said. Sublette County residents would get discounts except during blackout dates; the resort would be dark-sky certified; Ricketts would alleviate any funding shocks to the Bondurant Elementary School; a large water cistern would be available for Sublette County Unified Fire.

Private fishing

Bousman asked for a definition of the proposed resort’s “guest-ranch experience.”

Ricketts said his guests find his bison and Percheron horses “very fascinating.”

The biggest draw will be 21 fishing “points” on the Hoback River for his guests, some on private streams for his company’s use only. People could watch birds, cross-country ski, go on a cattle drive or watch a branding, he added.

“It depends on the guests’ responses; they’re going to get a rural experience.”

Commissioner Noble said, “I think you can all agree our fishing is second to none. Would you consider stocking (fish) to enhance it?”

Ricketts replied he has “people who do this for me.”

Stephens asked about public access to “streams” and Ricketts replied he meant “creeks that are in some places are very, very small. … These streams are private – the public can’t get to them.”

Ricketts owns 7 miles of waterfront along the Hoback River.

Later, Brad Lido commented that he sent the rezoning application to two national river associations – “Both organizations are in strong opposition to increased recreational uses (because) 21 different angling locations could increase contamination of the Hoback River.”

Commissioners also asked several questions about subdividing, parking, water and public safety. 

Public comments

Compared to hundreds of collective hours on citizen comments, letters, emails and speaking, only a handful spoke this year to support rezoning. None spoke on Dec. 7.

Bousman told the audience: “We read your letters; we know what your concerns are.”

Muley Fanatic cofounder Josh Corsey said the commissioners had a conundrum with private property rights on one hand and the owner’s “very self-serving” interests on the other. He asked commissioners to deny it due to “enormous investment” in the county’s unique migration routes, especially the Hoback to Red Desert Mule Deer Migration Corridor.

Joni Mack agreed that wildlife migration is a key to the basin and said the rezone request did not follow the county’s goals. Destination resorts in Sublette County include Half Moon Lake Lodge, Lakeside Lodge, Big Sandy Lodge and others run by “rural hardworking people.”

“Wealthy landowners can hire advocates, they can hire a silver-tongued person,” she said.

Stephanie Housley addressed the application’s economic report, calling it “a pitch that has a superficial positive” with “an absence of diligence – no transparency, no timeframes, no relevance.”

P&Z board member Ken Marincic said he voted to recommend the rezoning and wanted to speak as a citizen: “We need to be sure, remember it’s a Sublette County situation and if this resort or this change would be appropriate in Big Piney, it would be appropriate (on Upper Hoback Road). Bondurant is no more special than Pinedale, Boulder or anywhere else.”

Former P&Z board member Jim Huntley asked commissioners to deny the application.

Tyler Wilson said travel between Jackson and Bondurant is dangerous at best and resort guests mean more people on the forest – “Joe Ricketts is a good man, but maybe he needs to step back and look at the whole picture?”

John Carter spoke of Hoback Basin being the “epicenter” for mule deer, elk, moose and pronghorn migration routes.

Horton Spitzer appreciated Ricketts’ “heartfelt passion” but “traffic should not be discounted.” Thinking guests would bypass Jackson for a rural experience without cars was “naive.”

Melissa Harrison said the application did not meet the 10 items requested by commissioners. “I completely question how big this resort will become in the long run and how it will forever change our valley and Sublette County. How many phases will come? Will it become a Snake River Sporting Club, which started years ago with a clubhouse and a few homes and now this year had 50 building permits pulled? Open this floodgate by allowing this spot rezoning and the flow will be started.”

Steve Robertson spoke as a Bondurant rancher and vice president of the Hoback Cattle & Horse Association.

“Bringing recreational services into a remote area conflicts with the community’s character,” he said. Commissioners “are fully aware of the importance of livestock grazing and ag industry here,” Robertson said, and Ricketts’ “longterm goal is to transform a rural ag community into a resort community.”

Jackson’s drastic transformation in the past several decades left many worried the resort-rezoning precedent to crack the small Bondurant community’s shell.

DK Kominsky said she visited Jackson in 1968. “It’s a tragedy; they’ve given up that beautiful little town and crammed in a city. One change is change forever. Once you lose it, you will never get it back.” 

Dismay

“Unanimous dismay” was how one person described the shock after the 3-2 vote.

Before the vote, each commissioner had a chance to address the audience.

Commissioner Vickrey said, “I’ve been up three nights trying to ascertain what this is going to be all about. Maybe I should have just let and went through items 1 through 10.”

It was a “disservice to the Planning and Zoning Board, a glaring mistake, that we do not support the board’s recommendation (to deny).”

He went through the criteria, saying many answers were unknown and compared Bondurant and the Upper Hoback to a penny that should not be spent – “I know where to draw the line.”

Commissioner Stephens said, “I was elected to this office by a lot of people in this room. … I just want to say I’m not in favor of this at all.”

Bousman said Ricketts’ resort was a great opportunity to educate people about rural lifestyles, which he has tried to do for decades. “I see the potential opportunity here. It’s an opportunity maybe for Mr. Ricketts to educate people on public land values.”

He asked for a motion including the eight conditions and contingent on Game and Fish’s mule-deer mitigation. White, Bousman and Noble gave “ayes,” and Vickrey and Stephens’ “nay.”

The room was silent; Ricketts rose and moved toward the commissioners with his arms open but stopped short of White and Bousman. Later, people met with Fischer and Ricketts in the library hallway for handshakes while others shook their heads in shock.

Fischer referred additional questions from the Roundup to Ricketts’ public relations department. No comment was returned by press time. 

‘Very disappointing’

Some are upset commissioners voted without responding to their comments.

The Roundup reached out to Bousman, Noble and White to answer questions following the meeting. None returned comment.

Mack said Wednesday that explanations are owed.

“I personally feel strongly that commissioners White and Noble owe the people of Sublette County an explanation for their ‘yes’ vote, as Mr Bousman did in a lengthy albeit rather obscure commentary. Mr. Vickrey and Mr. Stephens gave a rationale for their votes against the rezoning.

“It all had the feeling that the ‘yes ‘voting commissioners were trying to please Mr. Ricketts rather than listen to the valid concerns of the roomful of people and the many who joined the meeting online.”

Housely also said the lack of explanation “shocked” her. “This is what’s sticking in people’s craws – for the five commissioners to look the entire room in the eye, with hundreds of people in person and online against it.”

And, “If what drove that decision is financial, if they bought into that, that is really terrible. … They cut off Bondurant’s nose to spite its face.”

Dan Smitherman said Wednesday he saw “unanimous dismay” from his neighbors stunned by the vote.

“I feel very strongly the people who objected made their case based on the comprehensive plan (and zoning laws),” he said. “People who got up and spoke provided substantive comments that were germane. It felt like the commissioners did not listen to what their constituents wanted.”

Some see pending doom for Sublette County’s agricultural heritage and open spaces.

“The commissioners sold out the ag community,” Robertson said Wednesday. “This resort will market the area and it will attract both resort guests and many, many others who see their marketing and hear about the resort. And, over time, it will dramatically increase noncommercial day use on the Bridger-Teton National Forest.”

Further, he said, “This will overrun the wildlife, the wildlife habitat and over a shorter time than you think, push out the grazing on public lands. This happened in Jackson when they put the ski resort in. It took about 10 years. … Once a rancher loses their grazing permit, they lose their ag business. They break up their ranches and sell them off. And there goes your open spaces.

“I have lived in this county for many decades. It has been an ag county. I read the comprehensive plan to prepare my remarks. It specifically talks about the importance of the ag business in this county. Bousman gets this so I have no idea why he would vote to approve this rezoning application.”

Robertson said after the vote, “The saddest thing to me is to lose the wildlife and habitat, which I have seen happen in my lifetime up around Jackson.”

“The vote was very disappointing, not just to me and my family, but to the entire community of Bondurant, which stood united in opposition to this plan and to the precedent it sets,” Mack said. “The commissioners who voted in favor of this development ignored not only the will of the people in the community affected, but also the important work done by Planning and Zoning, the vote by P&Z to deny the application, as well as the numerous points in the Comprehensive Plan, which were violated by the application.”

Smitherman is concerned the precedent will exacerbate an already-high level of concern “going down the road.”

“As a resident of Bondurant, my general concern is over what might happen in Bondurant – this could be the first step in that direction to be like Jackson.”

Joy Ufford photos

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