Upcoming vote could crack open rural Hoback Basin
Will commissioners give Ricketts his 1,400-acre guest ranch?
SUBLETTE COUNTY – On March 7, next Tuesday Sublette County commissioners are scheduled to weigh in on the future of the rural and untouched solitude of the Hoback Basin and Bondurant, population 108.
Sitting between Jackson and Pinedale, the Hoback Basin has been drooled over for decades as a developer’s golden goose, although as resident Dan Bailey pointed out on Feb. 16, the current commercial proposal by Jackson Fork Ranch owner, billionaire Joe Ricketts, would double or triple the town’s population.
On Feb. 16, the Sublette County Planning & Zoning Commission, the public and only one commissioner listened to Ricketts’ agent Morgan Fischer explain why the board, public and commissioners at their next March 7 meeting, should stop fighting Ricketts’ latest proposal.
The P&Z commission consists of chair Chris Lacinak, Blake Greenhalgh, Ken Marincic, Pat Burroughs and Maike Tan.
Ricketts’ team was Fischer and attorneys Ed Wood and John Graham.
At the most recent of numerous, five-hour public meetings, on Feb. 16 the P&Z commission loosened its grip on saying “no” to the billionaire’s vision.
As they have at every public hearing on the Ricketts’ plans, citizens have told the P&Z commission and any county commissioners there – they do not want Ricketts’ resort and expanded guest ranch to affect their community, livelihoods, solitude, property values and family investments and turn Hoback Basin and Bondurant into Ricketts’ “fantasy” vision for “Little Jackson Hole.”
County commissioners’ recent majority votes, at 3-2, have overruled the P&Z commission’s recommendations and county planner Dennis Fornstrom’s interpretations of Ricketts’ development proposals. They were chair Sam White, Tom Noble and previously Joel Bousman voting in favor, Dave Stephens and Doug Vickrey voting “nay.” New commissioner Mack Bradley is an unknown; some voters have expressed private concerns to the Roundup that Bradley might not realize how deeply his vote will affect their rural communities and the county as a whole.
The issue before the board was whether or not to recommend expansion of Ricketts’ current guest-ranch conditional use permit (CUP) from 479 acres to encompass the entire 1,300-acre Jackson Fork Ranch and its nearby Dead Shot Ranch unit, thus allowing, as Fischer explained, to facilitate the resort/ guest ranch complex’s management.
The resort was approved when county commissioners voted in 2021 to approve Ricketts’ recreational services district, which they had previously opposed.
If commissioners do not approve the amended CUP application on March 7, the Jackson Fork Ranch’s current guest limit and activities remain centered near the proposed resort, Fischer acknowledged. The Dead Shot’s short-term rentals would remain separate from the Jackson Fork Ranch’s guest ranch with the nearby resort, he said.
The P&Z board heard more from Bailey plus landowners Rosemary Benson, Lisi Krall, Melissa Harrison, Marilyn Filkins, Mark Anselmi, Ben Franklin and former board member Jim Huntley, who called the amended guest ranch application “Joe Ricketts’ fantasy” that would diminish Sublette County’s unique character.
Their concerns ranged from public safety to wildlife, changing definitions to emergency response, water, noise and the pristine Upper Hoback River.
“There are 28 separate property owners between the highway (191) and the end of the Upper Hoback Road,” Bailey said. “You should not supplant their private property rights for one person.”
He and others spoke to the Sublette County Comprehensive Plan’s “vision statement” of keeping Sublette County’s character, landscapes, ranch lifestyle and traditions.
“It’s a delicate mountain basin,” Filkins said. She and husband cowboy Tom Filkins have lived at the Hoback Basin grazing allotment’s cow camp for decades and bought property for their kids and grandkids. She voiced concern for migrating wildlife she saw caught on Ricketts’ fences. “All of these things are in such a violation of what that basin is about.”
Anselmi questioned “all these promises – who’s going to enforce them?”
Benson, with property off the Upper Hoback Road beyond the Dead Shot, said her family does not want to see or hear resort or ranch guests; Fischer has promised them a landscaped berm.
“We’re in a domain where the definitions of words are no longer what we think they mean,” Krall said. “The resort is (bringing) in profound change, a large-scale resort. The land is no longer agricultural land and we should be honest about that.”
In response to Graham’s comment that requesting the amended guest ranch CUP “is the only route we have,” Lacinak brought up the very real commercial hub proposed for an otherwise ag-zoned Upper Hoback Road.
“Do they want to turn Upper Hoback Road into a commercial venture instead of residential and agricultural,” he said. “… The outcome they’re asking for is to turn an Ag-residential area into a commercial development. I would argue this does not support the ag interests in Sublette County.”
Fischer made promises the P&Z commission considered through five hours of questions from board members and public comments, none favoring the amended CUP. it came down to the nitty gritty.
Lacinak expressed doubt that the CUP application was properly completed to address positive and “detrimental” outcomes before the March 7 commissioners’ vote.
“People have said this would be injurious” to their property rights and water quality,” he said to Graham. “What’s your response – ‘Well it could be worse?”
Burroughs rustled papers and spoke to the board.
“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again,” she said. “I can’t believe I’m about to do this.”
The P&Z commission is trying to interpret rules that decision-makers “do not seen as important or valuable,” she said.
She moved to recommend Ricketts’ amended guest ranch CUP with nine conditions – “we’ve been working on this awhile” – such as heavy equipment use, infrastructure, hours, dark skies, sewage, events and Fischer’s promise of only 215 recreational users at any one time.
As the teams refined conditions, Tan asked to speak.
“Pat made a motion; we’re including conditions and several friendly amendments. I understand the strategy of doing that – it’s very tempting but I’m not going to vote for that at all.”
The P&Z commission “hasn’t had teeth” with recent decisions that influence the entire county, Tan said. “You’re never going to get this area back.”
People spoke from their hearts without being heard and she was “heartbroken,” she said.
“It’s like a big, slow-moving train going through and not one of us is able to stop it.”
Tan asked Lacinak to be her proxy for her final “nay” vote, and left.
The motion to support passed, 3-2, with Lacinak and Tan’s nay votes.
Sublette County commissioners are set to hear from P&Z staff and Fischer at 1 p.m. on Tuesday, March 7, in the Lovatt Room.