Letters to the editor - Jackson Fork Ranch rezoning


Sublette County or Russia?

On Dec. 7, the Sublette County Commissioners met to deliberate the Jackson Fork, LLC’s application for a zoning change along a stretch of the Upper Hoback River Road. Virtually, the same application had been turned down by the Planning and Zoning Board and the county commissioners on July 7, 2020. This time Jackson Fork, LLC was more strategic in the timing of its application. The application was dated Oct. 11, a time when many of the residents of Bondurant had left for the holiday season. Clearly, Jackson Fork, LLC wanted to minimize the input from the residents. Despite the challenge, the residents of Bondurant united in opposing the zoning change, which would allow for a minimum of 44 rooms in a high-end resort along the Upper Hoback River Road. The opposition to the zoning change consisted of Republicans, Democrats, vaxxers, anti-vaxxers, environmentalists, ranchers, conservatives and liberals. In other words, they represented a broad constituency united in their fight to hold the Planning and Zoning Board and the county commissioners accountable to the Sublette County Comprehensive Plan and Zoning and Development Regulations.

These citizens were concerned about the many negative externalities of the development, the lack of a good business plan for the development, its potential to be a revenue drain on Sublette County and the deficient studies on traffic, water, access to labor, and affordable housing provided with the application. And they were concerned with the way the zoning change would begin to alter what is one of the most remarkable rural communities left in the United States and the wildlife that is supported therein. That development would move Bondurant away from its historic and customary land use and the community that surrounds it. It clearly did not have the welfare of the Sublette County residents in mind as these residents are positioned to shoulder the negative externalities from the development with few, if any, benefits.

Joe Ricketts attended the meeting in order to give the imprimatur of legitimacy. He claimed the development is necessary in order to maintain the financial viability of the ranch for his grandchildren. It is purportedly needed to supplement the income to run the ranch. How a bad business plan on the part of a billionaire will do that is unclear. It would seem that a diversified stock fund with the money Mr. Ricketts would spend on the project would surely secure the financial viability of that ranch in perpetuity for his grandchildren, and with a much greater contribution to his purported dedication to conservation. The Sublette County taxpayers will underwrite this project. Did the commissioners analyze for Sublette County, the income and expenses associated with this project? If they did, why weren’t these data provided at the meeting to assure the public, and if they didn’t do this analysis, it seems negligent.

Mr. Ricketts also claimed he wanted the development to provide an educational experience for people who desire to understand rural ranching life in Wyoming. I guess the assumption is that city dwellers from far and wide will spend thousands of dollars to ride a wagon around the buffalo ranch, have an hour lecture on Percheron horses, maybe have a barbeque or two, and do some fishing on the stretches of the Hoback River that run through the Ricketts ranch and are inaccessible to the public. All of the experiences Mr. Ricketts wants his guests to have are available under current zoning laws if his property is utilized as a dude ranch.

We don’t have the final tally of the letters in favor of the zoning change and those opposed, but we would like to get that tally for the public record. It is safe to say there was unanimous opposition to the zoning change based on the letters sent to the Planning and Zoning Board and the voices heard at the Sublette County commissioners’ meeting.

The many residents that had a stake in the decision needed to be able to access the meeting virtually because of the timing of the application (some were no longer in Bondurant) and because some residents were cautious about being exposed to Covid. The Planning and Zoning Board arranged for this to happen (that board voted against the zoning change). But the process of setting up a virtual link to the commissioners’ meeting seemed optional to at least one of the commissioners. Had it not been for the work of Dave Stephens and most importantly, Doug Vickrey, two of the commissioners who clearly understood the necessity of public participation, the residents of Bondurant and Sublette County would have been faced with hiring their own IT person to access the meeting, or not gaining access to the meeting at all.

In the end, we came to understand why some of the commissioners didn’t really want the residents to have access to the meeting. That would have meant there would be more accountability – accountability they wanted to avoid. Joe Ricketts didn’t show up to sway the commissioners; he showed up to lend an element of legitimacy to the vote of the three commissioners, who were clearly preparing to violate the public trust in order to do his bidding. It actually didn’t matter whether the residents were there or not. It was clear to the people at the meeting that the die were cast before the meeting ever began. Three commissioners: Sam White, Joel Bousman and Tom Noble, voted in favor of the zoning change and offered little to nothing by way of explaining how they could cast such a vote in the face of the many sound arguments, the sound reasoning, the unanimous opposition to the zoning change, the recommendation by the Planning and Zoning Board not to approve the zoning change and violation of essential aspects of the Sublette County Comprehensive Plan and the Zoning and Development Regulations. Honestly, those of us at the meeting felt we could have been political prisoners in Russia being tried for opposition to Putin’s political agenda. In that case, the facts wouldn’t matter. In this case, it didn’t matter what the citizens said, it didn’t matter the sound and reasoned arguments, it didn’t matter the unanimous opposition, nor the violation of important components of the institutional structure of decision making. None of it mattered.

We want commissioners who voted for this zoning change to explain – according to Chapter 8, Section 2, Subsection D of the regulations – why they voted the way they voted. We want them to publicly defend their decision in published form in light of the opposition to it and the fact that they did not take the recommendation of the Planning and Zoning Board, and the fact that the rezoning violates many of the stated purposes of the Zoning and Development Regulations. In short, we want the commissioners who voted in favor of granting this zoning change to be held accountable for this egregious violation of the public trust and the framework that is supposed to guide such decisions.

Lisi Krall,

Hoback Basin Coalition

Trooped up

I watched the county commissioners on Zoom as they met to decide on the zone change requested for the Upper Hoback River Valley. I have never seen a more blatant example of democracy being defaced. With the exception of the person making the request and his minion, not one testimony was in favor of the zone change. Our own county planning and zoning group had rejected the request. People representing families, conservation groups, sportspeople, recreationists and citizens trooped up one after another to plead with the commissioners not to grant the zone change. The will of the people was crystal clear.

Three of the five commissioners voted against this powerful demonstration of what the people who elected them wanted. It is not rocket science to figure out what the people must do when those three are up for reelection. 

Jana Weber,

Sublette County

A grave prediction

It was gut-wrenching to watch this travesty of a meeting roll out last week in Bondurant. The people’s well-said comments, on-point concerns and overwhelming opposition to the zone change were thrown under the bus. Even the Sublette County Planning & Zoning Commission had previously voted against the zoning change. The lack of complete regard or support for the Bondurant community’s concerns about migrating wildlife disruption, already over-fished river, pristine environment and truly unique culture and lifestyle demonstrates that Sublette County’s direction is driven by big money. The fact that the name “Little Jackson Hole” was discussed for a name to this elite resort flies in the face of what Sublette County stands for. This is so disheartening and a grave prediction of our county’s direction. I believe the three of the five commissioners who pushed this vote through to change the zoning from agriculture to recreation had already made their decision prior to the meeting. If a county commissioner election were held today, would you vote to relect these three commissioners? They have sure lost my support and vote.

Elaine Crumpley,

Bondurant

Shame

As I write this, I have just learned that our county commissioners approved the Ricketts’ “Little Jackson” scheme in Bondurant…Wow! Hey, Joel, how would you like this next to your beautiful ranch in Boulder? Doubt it! Hey, Tom, how would you and your family like this next to the Bookjack Ranch in Cora? Doubt it! Sam, don’t know where you live, but apparently you came in with the big money during the boom, so perhaps you don’t really care. Apparently you all were influenced by something we will never know. You all apparently don’t represent me and lots of the Sublette County folks who you are supposed to be representing! Also, why have a Planning and Zoning Board, and ignore their recommendation not to approve the rezoning of this rural ag land for a luxury guest ranch? What about the county’s comprehensive plan and rezoning criteria? You three won’t even justify your votes, or respond when asking for comments. Voters won’t forget this. Shame on you!

Annie Sondgeroth,

Pinedale

Few questions

Recently, the Sublette County Commissioners met to vote on the rezoning of Mr. Joe Ricketts’ Upper Hoback ranch from agriculture to recreation. Mr. Ricketts says he wants to build a “high-end resort.” Members in favor and voting for this zoning change were Mr. Sam White (reelection date: 1/25), Mr. Joel Bousman (1/23), and Mr. Tom Noble (1/25). Each voted in favor of the Jacksonifcation of Hoback Basin and, ultimately, Pinedale. One of Mr. Ricketts’ arguments was the familiar, “It’s for the children” (his grandchildren) with little thought for the local residents.

Of particular concern was the vote was in direct opposition, for the second time, of the zoning committee’s recommendation.

Residents clearly understand the commissioners must speak for all Sublette County, but also must give weight to those residents directly affected. This is exactly why the commissioners are required to seek input from residents prior to decisions concerning zoning changes and significant property issues prior to those decisions.

There were approximately 100 interested residents in attendance and about 70 online. Additionally, the commissioners received over 60 letters and emails from residents. It is noteworthy that not one person in attendance spoke in favor of the zoning change and only one of the many letters and emails was in favor. In other words, resident disapproval was well over 95 percent.

Given those numbers, why did the commissioners ignore Hoback Basin residents and zoning committee input and, instead, voted against the charter with which they are entrusted?

It is also interesting that this meeting was held in December, when many part-time residents were absent for the winter and were unaware of the meeting? And why was the meeting held in the middle of the workday? It would appear to the casual observer the decision to approve the zoning change was made prior to the meeting, which then became merely a formality.

Jim and Alice Jacobson,

Hoback Basin

Wake up, Wyoming

If you do not care about the destructive changes overrunning our state, stop right here. If you, and neighboring counties do, please be aware how a few people of influence and economic superiority are rapidly changing our “Cowboy State” into just another “woke state” governed to comply with their personal agenda. The citizens at the recent commissioners’ meeting were patriots who saw this firsthand. The Ricketts’ proposal to build a resort in Bondurant was opposed by every single speaker of the approximately 100 citizens present or on Zoom. There was not a single approval given to Ricketts’ proposal. Ricketts personally stressed his “guest ranch” would not negatively affect the community's Western character, wildlife or put pressure on surrounding communities. It would also satisfy his children's desire to carry on its presence. His passionate presentation was naturally self-serving and riddled with questionable and false assumptions. Basically, he would own the town of a few hundred residents by controlling the water, the fire department, which he promised to enhance, and the school, which cannot handle the increased enrollment. He wants to change the name to Little Jackson Hole. The closest drug store, food market, retail store would be a 30-minute drive to Jackson or Pinedale. It would be just another Jackson Hole suburb with more traffic on the scenic, but dangerous, Highway 191. His 5-mile-long property cuts cross the nation’s major wildlife migration corridor. Why not donate the land to a conservation organization? This question was asked by speakers, but the commissioners never asked Ricketts.

Bottom line – how could three of the five county commissioners, who were elected by those at the meeting, vote for the proposal which all those present vehemently opposed and which the planning commission also opposed? Is it wrong to ask the following? 1) Do our elected officials think they are smarter than those who elected them? (an insult). 2) Are they not very smart? (an insult). 3) Do they have an agenda contrary to the issues which got them elected? (dishonest). 4) Are they working with their constituents or perhaps with applicants for personal gain? (illegal).

I couldn't believe how three elected officials could look in the eyes of those who elected them and totally opposed to the proposal and voted against them. I invite the commissioners to respond.

Lastly, I urge other communities in the region to heed the warning that large tracts are being bought by those who may wish to promote their personal ambitions of profit or social change at the expense of our treasured Western character. Importantly, this project will have a significant impact on Jackson's traffic and future planning. Get informed. Get involved!

Horton Spitzer,

Wilson (formerly Daniel)

Sublette commissioners buffaloed by a billionaire 

I could almost pity Mr. Ricketts enduring the outpouring of anger and angst of Sublette residents during the recent Sublette County commissioners’ meeting. Almost.

Sublette County has been good to the Ricketts’ family fortune. While he expressed doubt about not having the funds to “keep the farm in the family,” this multi-acre spread appears to be a cash cow or, more accurately, a bounteous buffalo.

Per the Wyoming Secretary of State’s Office, the mailing address for Jackson Fork Ranch LLC is 1395 S. Platte River Drive, Denver, CO. This happens to be the location for High Plains Bison, meat supplier for Wrigley Field, home of the Ricketts’ Chicago Cubs team. A May 6, 2010, Chicago Tribune article waxed poetic about the buffalo meat menu.

“Turns out the Ricketts family brought more to the Cubs than fresh faces and a remodeled players' locker room. The family's ranch in Little Jackson Hole, Wyo., produces humanely raised, all-natural bison meat, which goes into the High Plains Bison hot dog, available at the Chicago Dogs carts at various points in the park. At a mere $5.25, this is one terrific hot dog, with meaty flavor and a satisfying bite. It's the best hot dog in the park. You can also get it buffalo-style (buffalo-style bison sounds redundant, but it isn't), and the Big Dawg's kiosk by the home-plate entrance offers footlong versions for $7.” https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-xpm-2010-05-06-ct-play-0506-vettel-ballpark-wrigley-20100506-story.html.

Nice play, so to speak, being able to sell the meat you raise at your own sport venue, at a price you set. Many meat producers, including some who voted for the rezoning, would appreciate a similar windfall, rather than having to accept what the market offers. Who knows, but maybe the bison meat revenues provided Mrs. Ricketts with the funds to host an inauguration event? As noted in an April 20, 2017, New York Times article:

“Not to be outdone, the office of the commissioner of Major League Baseball also wrote a check for $100,000, and Marlene M. Ricketts, whose family owns the Chicago Cubs, handed over $1 million.” https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/20/us/politics/trump-inauguration-donors.html.

Running lucrative food concessions and passing out seven-figure donations rebut the argument that another stream of revenue is needed in “Little Jackson Hole” to protect an already successful entrepreneurial venture. Frankly, Sublette County commissioners, when you went to bat on this one, you struck out.

But, here's an idea for you to redeem this travesty. Update the use classification on the entire ranch from agriculture to commercial and apply the corrected assessment. Since this more intense development will place an additional burden on Sublette County services, such as fire and police protection, let the newly approved business pay its fair share and not make non-billionaire taxpayers shoulder the increased costs. 

Jocelyn Moore,

Pinedale

Another perspective

To the concerned citizens of Bondurant, I want to offer another side of the story on the recent zoning approval for Joe Ricketts’ resort. I grew up in a town/county strikingly similar in composition to this area. We had a mix of ranchers, boom/bust oil and gas, and some tourism as people made their way to the neighboring resort towns.

Here in Sublette, we actually already have several guest ranch properties that are zoned the same as Mr. Ricketts was requesting. Some of you may not even realize this because, in general, they do not disrupt our lives in any meaningful way. I know it is being said that there was only opposition to this zoning change, but I have talked with many folks that support or are at least irresolute on this subject. I can only speak for myself and my experiences, but I think there is opportunity in this. The argument was made that the wages won’t be enough to live on, but this is mostly seasonal work. Growing up with several of these resorts surrounding our small town, the teenagers and young adults were the ones that took these seasonal jobs. This type of workforce does not require multiple family homes to be built, thus avoiding a housing boom in the area and turning Bondurant into “Little Jackson.” Instead, it offers tremendous opportunity to the youth in the area as well as supplemental work for locals. My siblings and I all worked our summers at these guest ranches and the money I saved, in part, put me through nursing school. My father, who had a full-time county job, picked up extra work guiding for one of the ranching for wildlife programs that the guest ranches ran. These were opportunities that helped our family and the local community.

I have also heard the concerns that it will bring extra traffic and burden the area, but I can say in our case, this was not true. We had several of these resorts operating in the mountains surrounding our town, and they flew into an airport several hours away and were shuttled to their “all-inclusive stay” at the guest ranch for the week. We rarely saw them in town. When we did, it was likely because they had fallen in love with the area and returned on their own to vacation, which only served to help our local businesses.

This is a heated subject and I understand many are worried. So many are fearful of turning into Jackson and the fear of the unknown. But when we pull back the curtain and look at how these operations are working in other similar, small communities, most of these fears are unfounded. While the Planning & Zoning denied the initial request, this actually happens to many of the businesses and residents of our county and then goes on to be passed by the county commissioners. This happened to my family on our small business request. Everyone has a right to their opinion and I am only offering mine for consideration. It is abhorrent, however, to suggest that the county commissioners have been bought off or threatening them in any way. I know that they have lost a lot of sleep debating and looking at all of the sides of this issue. They have a thankless job that does not afford them the opportunity to make everyone happy. Whether we agree, or disagree, we can all treat others with kindness.

Betsy Baldwin,

Pinedale

Abandonment of principle? 

After decades of hiking, climbing and fishing in the Wind Rivers, in 2020, we expanded our wildlife preserve from Idaho to include parcels in Hoback Ranches near Bondurant. We did this to protect habitat here by placing them in a conservation easement as we have done with the preserve in Idaho.

As we learned more about Sublette County and its emphasis on open space, wildlife corridors and preserving the historical character of the county, we felt better about our decision to invest here. Now, we realize that is an empty commitment by Sublette County and the intent of its vision and regulations are meaningless to some commissioners.

The decision by three members of the county commission last Tuesday came as a shock as so many residents had commented at the Planning and Zoning meeting and submitted written comments opposing the rezone. Planning and Zoning had denied the application. This process was repeated for the county commission meeting, again with residents commenting in large numbers in opposition. It didn't matter.

As environmental scientists and wildlife advocates, we had presented detailed comments and analysis showing the confluence of wildlife migration corridors and crucial habitats for mule deer, elk, moose and pronghorn that center on Bondurant and the Upper Hoback River. As a recent report by the PEW Charitable Trust showed, this area is unique in Sublette County for its importance to these animals. The Jackson Fork Resort is centered in this important location. If there is any place in Sublette County where open space and wildlife migration should be protected and development prevented, it is here.

The meeting did not allow the public adequate time to make their points, while Mr. Ricketts and his team of lawyers, consultants and manager were allowed unlimited time to ramble on about the project, how he needed the money to maintain his ranch and all the good things they were going to do for the area. Money, you know. The meeting room was filled with people. There were dozens on the Internet in attendance as well. It was clear by the applause in the room when those opposing the project were allowed to make a point, the audience agreed. Don't approve the rezone! That was the message. It fell on deaf ears, the project was approved and the county commission lost a lot of support in doing so.

John Carter,

KM Ranch, Bondurant

Messages were disregarded

As you are aware, disappointment is felt broadly across our great county regarding the allowance of rezoning in ultra rural Sublette. Several missteps took place during Tuesday’s (Dec. 7) decision-making process by chair Bousman and members White and Noble.

Public comment was restricted multiple times. Historically, meeting rules have allowed each individual to speak twice. Many were not allowed to speak at all, let alone twice.

  • The citizens were explicitly required to address the 10 requirements of the Planning & Zoning regulations. The commissioners were not held to the same standard. Only one out of the five commissioners addressed all of these requirements, leaving those present with no understanding of the basis of their decision.
  • The continual reference of money was conspicuous. It was continually offered/used to disregard the Planning & Zoning Regulations.
  • The finding and recommendation by the Planning & Zoning Board to decline the zoning change request was ignored.

Professionals spoke and the messages were disregarded. Leaders of the Muley Fanatics Foundation presented valid points in conflict of the proposition and their words were dismissed.

The Jackson Fork Facebook page continually uses the wildlife, their migratory patterns and their numbers as advertising yet chose to submit a report that was in direct conflict with migratory patterns and UW-produced reports that were presented to all commissioners in advance of the public hearing.

A petition was presented to all commissioners prior to the hearing that was only put together Saturday afternoon prior to the hearing attempting to show public discourse and opposition to rezoning. With any effort this petition that, admittingly, was put together inadvertently on a far-left platform, could easily produce documentation that the majority of the commissioners constituents are in opposition of the rezoning efforts.

Tracy Tominc,

Bondurant

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