PINEDALE—Sublette County Commissioner Doug Vickrey pulled no punches as he motioned to tell Joe Ricketts no to a restaurant, gymnasium, bunkhouse and cabin village at the end of the quiet, rural forest road.
The billionaire TD Ameritrade founder’s proposal was “detrimental to the public health, safety [and] welfare,” Vickrey charged. Moreover, he said, the plans to makeover the riverbank at the head of the Upper Hoback River valley would materially harm Ricketts’ neighbors.
Vickrey’s objection was predictable. He’d been opposed — though in the commission’s minority — in a series of decisions to OK major development plans that clashed with wildlife and the ethos of the quaint western Wyoming communities that dot Sublette County. Commissioner Dave Stephens and the Sublette County Planning and Zoning board have also been reliably opposed to the controversial construction proposals, but they and Vickrey have been overruled by three commissioners who’ve consistently supported giving developers what they want.
Last week, however, commissioner Sam White flipped and, without explanation, joined Vickrey and Stephens in opposition.
“Sorry, guys,” White told Ricketts’ agents who’d pushed their plans through nearly five hours of deliberations. “Your application is denied at this time.”
A Sublette County Library conference room full of Bondurant residents applauded.
White did not return a call from WyoFile seeking comment.
The first round of claps and cheers came several hours earlier, when Vickrey read from the “code of the West” which was adopted as the Wyoming State Code in 2010.
“‘Remember that some things are not for sale,’” Vickrey said, reading the code. “Folks, I’m going to tell you right now, I am one of those things. I am not for sale. So, I would like Mr. Ricketts to know that with all his wealth there are some things in this world money cannot buy, and by God I’m one of them.”
A shifting cultural landscape
Last week’s setback only hinders one facet of Ricketts’ multipronged development plans for the upper reaches of the Hoback River, where he has already secured multiple parcels and entitlements to build. Major changes are on the horizon for Bondurant, a picturesque rural enclave of 100 residents whose homes and summer dwellings sprawl out in the high desert between the Gros Ventre and Wyoming mountain ranges.
The octogenarian billionaire who owns two ranches — the Jackson Fork and the Dead Shot — and several other lots, secured permission to build a controversial 64-room exclusive resort.
An earlier iteration of that resort, now planned for 56 acres on his Jackson Fork Ranch, was previously denied in 2020. The Ricketts team altered plans and came back 18 months later, winning over Sublette County commissioners 3-2. Ricketts’ Bondurant neighbors sued, and lost, according to the Sublette Examiner.
The conditional use permit application denied last week would have dovetailed with the coming resort, by folding another Ricketts holding — the 159-acre Dead Shot guest ranch — into the larger 1,300-acre Jackson Fork Ranch. The Dead Shot is already permitted for a small guest ranch — just five short-term residences used by no more than 15 guests. Ricketts sought to build that operation out with a 8,000-square-foot restaurant for guests, bunkhouse, gymnasium, staff quarters and 10 guest cabins of unspecified sizes. The guest cap would have jumped to 65 under the proposal.
The Sublette County Planning and Zoning Board, an advisory body that county commissioners have repeatedly disregarded, recommended support for the permit revision on a 3-2 vote with stipulations. The board’s aim, evidently, was to influence the outcome, rather than sit on the sideline advising straight denial. They attached 19 conditions to the yes recommendation, including a requirement that Ricketts retain a “dark sky consultant” to preserve Bondurant’s starry skies, and a cap of 215 guests recreating on the entire Jackson Fork and Dead Shot Ranch complex at any one time.
Much of Sublette County commissioners’ deliberations revolved around the guest numbers, and the discussions dragged on for hours. Questions arose about the definition of recreation, whether visitors on one property influenced guest caps on the other, who’d be allowed in the guest restaurant and how many people could be on the properties during special events.
Bondurant residents blasted the convoluted discussion when given the chance to say their part. Lisi Krall, a seasonal Upper Hoback River Road resident, took issue with how Ricketts’ plans have been rolled out piecemeal and never considered as a whole.
“The purpose of the [conditional use permit] on the Dead Shot and the whole parcel is not to put in a modest little guest ranch,” Krall said. “It’s to fit in with the entirety of an elaborate business plan … It’s a large-scale, exclusive resort along Upper Hoback River Road, that’s what’s happening here. As commissioners, you’re charged with assessing the damage to somebody like me.”
Others echoed her complaint, including some unlikely commenters.
Joy Ufford, a reporter at the Pinedale Roundup who’s written about the Ricketts saga, took the lectern and explained she got special permission from her editor to share her feelings.
“I said if I don’t say something I’m never going to forgive myself,” Ufford said. “I’m going to be sick, sick, sick if Bondurant is sacrificed as a stepping stone to Jackson.”
The next Jackson?
Ricketts refers to the Bondurant area as Little Jackson Hole, a moniker that’s rooted in history according to research he commissioned.
Teton County, infamously, is fast-transitioning into an outdoor playground for the wealthiest Americans, oftentimes at the expense of longtime residents and community culture. Graphic renderings of Ricketts’ forthcoming resort show a Jackson Hole brand of glitz. Ricketts’ staff has likened the vision for the Jackson Fork Ranch to the Brush Creek Ranch, a Saratoga-area resort that uses terms like “unbridled luxury” to describe itself.
It’s tough to say how Sublette County commissioners’ denial of the Dead Shot Ranch proposal will influence Ricketts’ larger plans for the Upper Hoback.
The denial of Ricketts’ guest ranch application means he must wait one year before resubmitting any similar development proposal, according to Sublette County Planner Dennis Fornstrom.
Ricketts’ agent and project front man Morgan Fischer declined WyoFile’s interview request. A public relations agent requested written questions about where the denial leaves Ricketts’ plans, instead. They too went unanswered.
Many suspect Ricketts has undisclosed larger plans for his Bondurant properties. He’s recently acquired most of a controversial national forest inholding, his agents confirmed, potentially as a bargaining chip for a land swap with the Bridger-Teton National Forest to increase his Upper Hoback River holdings. A cluster of private residences and a reach of national forest separate Ricketts’ Jackson Fork and Dead Shot properties.
Vickrey pressed Fischer for some clarity on the long-range plan ahead of the commissioners’ no vote.
“Knowing the ability of Mr. Ricketts to get his way, my guess is that at some point — whether it’s in the very near future or the next couple years — he is going to make a swap that will give him more private property,” Vickrey said. “What is the endgame? That’s the important thing for me to know.”
“Joe’s business plan is to open up his resort in conjunction with his guest ranch,” Fischer said. “That’s the end game. That’s where it ends.”
But Fischer also grouped “Daniel housing” into the current plan. He didn’t go into details, but the Sublette Examiner has reported that Ricketts has acquired nearly 60 acres of land near the tiny hamlet of Daniel Junction.
Fischer also conceded potential expansion of the Jackson Fork Ranch on the horizon. If an expansion happens, he said, it would be a “minimum of four or five years from now.”
Construction and opening the approved resort and just-denied guest ranch will take “three or four years,” Fischer said. They would only return to the commission to ask for more after that if all goes well and the Bondurant community’s worries prove unfounded.
“Perhaps at that time, we might ask the board for future use,” Fischer said.