Jackson Fork Ranch withdraws ‘guest ranch’ CUP – for now

Cali O’Hare photo Sublette County ranchers and residents look on as Morgan Fischer, the agent for billionaire Joe Ricketts, addresses the county commissioners on Dec. 6 regarding plans for the Jackson Fork Ranch.

SUBLETTE COUNTY – On Dec. 6, Sublette County commissioners sounded skeptical about a new “addendum” supplementing the Jackson Fork Ranch’s original all-inclusive “guest ranch” application that the county’s planning and zoning board reviewed and denied on Nov. 17.

At that Sublette County Planning and Zoning Board meeting, members voted to not support the “incomplete” conditional use permit (CUP) application presented by billionaire Joe Ricketts’ agent Morgan Fischer.

Ricketts seeks an amended CUP to enlarge his current “guest ranch” territory from 493 acres to cover the entire 1,300-acre string of properties along the Upper Hoback River and also bring in the recently purchased Dead Shot Ranch. He said residences at the Dead Shot are short-term rentals – which means guests there couldn’t enjoy the exclusive services on the Jackson Fork Ranch.

The Jackson Fork Ranch and Dead Shot Ranch are only connected by the county’s Upper Hoback Road that grazing permittees, hikers, ATVers and hunters also use to access the Bridger-Teton National Forest’s Upper Hoback.

The current guest ranch permit allows up to 15 guests and the amended CUP requests a limit of 50. The Dead Shot’s short-term rentals, which were permitted on July 14 after Ricketts’ recent purchase, allow 12 rental rooms. Before that, it was a family-owned ranch. After, it would be merged as part of Jackson Fork Ranch’s newly expanded guest ranch.

The P&Z Board declined to support the application on Nov. 17 and it went before county commissioners at their Dec. 6 meeting with the Nov. 30 addendum and a new map.

Where’s the resort?

After that vote, Fischer announced he had sufficient information for the commissioners’ approval. All five county commissioners – Doug Vickery, Sam White, chair Joel Bousman, Tom Noble and Dave Stephens – attended the Nov. 17 meeting, exceeding their quorum.

P&Z Board members had said Fischer’s guest ranch CUP application had blank spaces and lacked details, although county planner Dennis Fornstrom had judged it to be complete and worthy of county commissioners’ approval at their Dec. 6 meeting.

Neither the initial application nor the addendum’s map shows the 56-acre parcel Fischer and Ricketts succeeded in having rezoned to allow a luxury destination resort. That resort rezone is being challenged in court; its location and zoning are not shown on maps but it is adjacent to the remaining ag-zoned acreage.

During the six-hour public meeting on Nov. 17, Fischer said he’d already met with neighbors and agreed to move new guest ranch facilities south and screen neighbors’ view with a landscaped berm. Those conditions and another, to follow Wyoming Game and Fish wildlife recommendations, were put in writing.

Nothing personal

In his addendum, Fischer railed about Bondurant and Sublette citizens who “want to stymie any plan put forward by JFR” for the resort or expanded guest ranch.

At the Dec. 6 meeting in the Lovatt Room, a crowd of citizens against the expanded CUP gathered on Zoom and in person.

Chair Bousman asked Fornstrom about the addendum – “I’m a little confused. … This addendum is just a possible second consideration, or part of the application?”

Noble asked Fischer, “You sent an addendum to the CUP, to your current CUP?”

White also questioned the added materials and why they weren’t submitted to the P&Z Board.

Jackson Fork Ranch attorney John Graham said the “goal of the addendum is not to change the application” but to reflect voluntary stipulations they made.

“Candidly,” Graham said, “there is little love between” the P&Z Board to hear Ricketts’ requests.

Vickrey said he sat through the P&Z Board meeting “in wonderment,” saying Fischer acted “like a cat on a hot tin plate” with his rhetoric. When Fischer was asked if he would return with more information, Vickrey said, “He said ‘absolutely not.’”

That is the process for planning and zoning applications, Vickrey said on Dec. 6.

“There’s a protocol, even in Sublette County. You need to start with the Planning and Zoning Commission. … Reasonable people would sit down together and ask, what do you think?”

Rather than “circumventing the system we are accustomed to” by bringing the new material to county commissioners, Vickrey said, try to understand what these neighbors want.

“Our neighbors are suing us,” Fischer said. “And your board, for that matter.”

Melissa Harrison of Bondurant commented Fischer was mistaken to see opposition as a personal vendetta against Ricketts; she would oppose any proposed resort and guest ranch at Jackson Fork.

“We’re just trying to protect our homes,” she said.

Start over

Stephens also referred back to the Nov. 17 meeting, saying the CUP process should start over after “so many changes.”

“If I have questions, I ask the public,” he said. “That’s who I’m working for.”

Fischer made an appeal to Bousman, saying it was “exactly one year since the last meeting” and in that time JFR hired three part-time and two full-time employees. The large guest ranch would provide ag-related uses for guests and also spent $1.7 million in the county.

“I have questions since this seems to be an updated application,” Bousman said. “You need to give our staff time to react to this; you have to go back through Planning and Zoning. My gut reaction was I thought it met most of the (CUP) criteria. I felt fairly good about this.”

His inclination was to remand Fischer and his addendum back to the Planning and Zoning staff and board, Bousman said.

After a break, Fischer returned to the podium and announced he was “respectfully withdrawing this application and will submit substantially the same packet” rather than proceeding to the commissioners’ vote.

P&Z freeze?

Fornstrom remained at the table to discuss a possible “freeze” of P&Z applications that require public meetings so staff and the board could focus on its proposed rewritten regulations and definitions.

“It’s been some time since we’ve been able to focus on it,” he said with public hearings each month.

He also asked how commissioners felt about a nonpartisan outside agency or consultant review of the new proposed regulations “to make sure they are legally binding.”

White clarified that this agency would review, not rewrite – “I don’t want someone from outside to write our regulations.”

Fornstrom said it would help the office and board moving forward. “Now I’m just asking to have outside review of our proposed changes.”

Bousman suggested Fornstrom write up a Request for Proposals (RFP). Citizen Dan Bailey asked for the public’s involvement.

Commissioners voted, 5-0, to have Fornstrom drawn up an RFP and take bids. There would be a public meeting for commissioners and the public to discuss what comes from it, they agreed.

Then Fornstrom brought up a freeze “on any time-consuming projects moving forward … to work solely on these regulations.”

New applicants could be held back for a time, he suggested, which commissioners discussed with deputy county attorney/ county attorney-elect Clayton Melinkovich, who said one could be implemented that day by motion and extended with public notice.

Commissioners expressed that even with the freeze, they would still allow the Jackson Fork Ranch process to continue. Other consultants cautioned they might have some projects to submit over the winter.

Fornstrom withdrew his request for a temporary freeze. “It would help but I will withdraw it.”

Other P&Z actions

The first agenda item on Dec. 6 was a request to redraw an owner’s inner boundary line inside two lots at Jim Bridger Estates. It was approved, 5-0.

The second item was a rezoning request from Dry Wind, LLC, represented by Mike Jackson of Rio Verde Engineering.  The requests were to change one piece to Rural Residential 20 and the other to Light Industrial, and create a minor subdivision split by Bridle Bit Lane.

Noble took the lead on this request, saying he was “not crazy” about the highway approach to the proposed RR-20 lot.

“With respect to the neighborhood, I would like to remove landfill, dog kennel, oil and gas facility, auto wrecking, lumberyard, sawmill, temporary and worker camp” from the proposed rezoned lot’s Light Industrial allowed activities.

Noble also pushed strongly for a “living” tree boundary on its south boundary.

Jackson said he believed he could accept the conditions on the owner’s behalf. The trees would not actually be planted until development.

Neighbors Amy and Phil Belveal pointed out there are still LI lots for sale across the highway at the Pinedale Airport.

Commissioners voted to allow the rezone with conditions, 3-2, Vickrey and Stephens voting against.

Video News