Lawmaker seek to limit leases of Veterans Home land

SHERIDAN — The far northeast corner of the state land encompassing the Veterans Home of Wyoming is currently occupied not by veterans but by a private company, with a state-certified sand and gravel lease on the land. 

In the upcoming legislative session, the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Transportation, Highways and Military Affairs is trying to ensure the state does not effectuate similar leases in the future. 

Operated by the Wyoming Department of Health since 1990, the Veterans Home of Wyoming was founded in 1903, on 1,280 acres of state-owned land in Buffalo, Office of State Lands and Investments officials explained before the legislative committee in November. 

An addition to the veterans home — a skilled nursing facility exclusively for veterans — is on track to be completed in July 2022, Executive Director of the Wyoming Veterans Commission Tim Sheppard said. Legislators decided to locate the skilled nursing facility in Buffalo, adjacent to the veterans home, in 2018 after much debate. The leased area, Sheppard said, has little impact on veterans home operations or construction on the property. 

In 2019, however, the Board of Land Commissioners, a subsection of Office of State Lands and Investments, issued a sand and gravel lease on veterans’ home property, according to a report compiled by OSLI. The board leased the northeast corner of the veterans home property to a private construction company. 

OSLI and the board executed the lease, Sheppard said, without requesting public comment on the issue or feedback from the WDH, military department or other Wyoming government stakeholders. In fact, Sheppard said, neither the veterans commission nor the director of the veterans home knew the lease had been administered until months ago. 

The leasing of land dedicated to veterans use quickly garnered frustration, including among legislators. The lease has had a relatively limited impact on the veterans home’s operations, Sheppard said, but it was the principle that frustrated legislators. Land intended to honor veterans sacrifices is meant to be sacred and preserved. 

“I just would go back to the basic premise here,” Sheppard explained before legislators, “that this is a pristine area and that we really do want to maintain it.”

Before the Joint Committee on Transportation, Highways and Military Affairs in November, Jason Crowder, deputy director of OSLI, explained why the Board of Land Commissioners and OSLI leased the land. 

In a report on the veterans home property and before legislators, Crowder emphasized the board maintains the authority to effectuate a sand and gravel lease on property “vested in the Department of Health and…not directly utilized for departmental purposes,” including the land currently leased at the veterans home. 

Although he admitted the board may not have executed the lease as they should have, Crowder affirmed the board’s right to administer state-held properties. 

“We’ve been placed in a very hard spot, managing these lands on the part of these institutions,” Crowder said. “We’ve had to make some tough calls, and they haven’t been popular calls. But we’ve tried to live within the letter of the law and do what the intent of the Legislature would like us to.”

Legislators were not satisfied with Crowder’s answer. 

“How in the world of common sense would anybody sign a sand and gravel lease on the same piece of property where we have our veterans home?” asked Rep. Joe MacGuire, R-Casper, astonished. “Who is in charge and who made that decision?”

In response to the leasing issue, the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Transportation, Highways and Military Affairs decided to approve a bill limiting lease conditions on the veterans home property for presentation in the Wyoming House of Representatives. 

The bill would authorize the Board of Land Commissioners to lease state lands surrounding the veterans home only for grazing.  

“...[A]ny lease authorized herein shall contain a clause restricting the use of the leased property to grazing purposes, so long as the veterans home of Wyoming and the Wyoming veterans skilled nursing facility exist in the adjacent location,” the bill states. “The land leased shall be known as the veterans home and skilled nursing facility buffer zone.”

Whether the bill will become a law, though, will be determined by the Legislature in the upcoming session. 

Meanwhile, little can be done about the current lease on veterans home property. The lease will expire in June 2023 and cannot be rescinded early, Crowder said. As a result, Sheppard said there will likely be about 6 months of overlap between veterans establishing residency at the new skilled nursing facility and the ongoing sand and gravel lease. 

The veterans commission has no plans to do anything about the current lease. For the time being, Sheppard said, the commission simply accepts one corner of the land is leased for sand and gravel operations — and will remain that way until 2023.