Sublette County commissioners’ rezoning to allow a 68-room luxury resort in what had been a rural hideaway of Bondurant is emblematic of development pressures challenging many Wyoming communities, raising questions about whether they are prepared, able and willing to address fast-approaching changes.

Spurred on by urban COVID-19 “refugees” and myriad other factors, some parts of the state find themselves pinched as visitors morph into property owners, accelerating real estate activity and new development.

In Park County, for example, a boom began in fiscal year 2019-’20 when subdivision permits jumped to 500% of the prior year, according to information from the planning office in Cody. Meanwhile, a code enforcement officer in Sweetwater County has been busy warning internet buyers of near-inaccessible Red Desert properties that may have roadblocks to development such as no utilities, services or even legal access.

Development in Park County was putting up “record-breaking numbers” before 2020 said Joy Hill, the county planner. “Then COVID hit,” she said.

“It just went crazy. Especially with subdivisions,” Hill said. “They want their little piece of paradise out in the county,” she said of buyers.

Whether newcomers are COVID-19 refugees or “whatever you want to call it — it’s changed the market and some of the perceptions of how we do things,” said Bob Budd, the head of the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust. Tasked to enhance wildlife habitats and the natural resource heritage of Wyoming, he and the trust see a fast-approaching train.

“The thing that is striking is the scale,” Budd said. “Subdivisions and habitat fragmentation are things we’re going to have to think about.”

Jerimiah Rieman, executive director of the Wyoming County Commissioners Association, sees development pressures that “seem to come in waves.” He’s not sure we’re on the crest of one now, but, “it certainly isn’t stopping.”

Facing that, “counties begin to wonder what their options and responsibilities are,” he said.

23 land use plans

All 23 counties in Wyoming have adopted land-use or comprehensive plans, as allowed by Wyoming law, according to a survey done by Rieman’s association earlier this year and confirmed by WyoFile. These are separate from municipal ordinances that apply to developments in towns.

Counties may “regulate and restrict the location and use of buildings … structures and … lands,” the sweeping state law states.

A zoning map for Uinta County seeks to regulate land uses. (Uinta County)

But land-use or comprehensive plans are enforceable only after counties adopt zoning regulations. About half of the counties have zoned and regulated development across their entire jurisdictions; the others have only zoned parts.

A handful or fewer have no zoning rules, regulations that limit things like the location, type and size of developments, according to the April survey.

“Some counties are fiercely protective of the fact they haven’t adopted zoning regulations and they want to stay there,” Rieman said.

Trust Director Budd added: “We have the greatest amount of respect for property rights. That is an issue that isn’t going to change.”

In Goshen County, for example, there’s no comprehensive zoning, only some requirements addressing “confined animal feeding operations,” county planner Gary Childs said. “My understanding of history is it’s been brought up several times maybe in the last 40 or 50 years,” he said of zoning, “and hasn’t drawn support.”

The authors of a 2018 Wyoming planning overview outlined benefits of looking forward. “Communities are better situated to respond to changing needs by anticipating future conditions and making decisions to maximize the local economy and ensure a high quality of life,” William J. Gribb and Jeffrey D. Hamerlinck wrote. “A decision not to plan is itself a form of de facto planning.”

Oh, give me a home…

The presence of wildlife is synonymous with a high quality of life in much of Wyoming — a quality that the human footprint invariably alters. While there’s less empirical data from the time before radio and GPS tracking, it’s not difficult to see places wildlife avoid today.

“It’s clear that migrations don’t go through these really built-up areas,” said Matt Kauffman, leader of the Wyoming Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Unit at the University of Wyoming. “They kind of skirt around the town. You see the same thing in all of Wyoming’s small towns.

“They want their little piece of paradise out in the county”

Joy Hill, park County planner

“Now we have good migration maps for the migrations around Jackson, Cokeville, Pinedale, Dubois, Cody,” he said. “That information sets the table for decision makers who can say ‘if we’re interested in continuing this, these are the areas we should limit development.’”

Budd sees a different type of Wyoming resident these days and an expanded footprint. Settlers used to seek water and shelter, like trees, when picking a place to build a cabin or house, he said.

“People now will live in places when, growing up, we never would have thought of,” he said. Meantime, the trust, with an annual budget of between $6 million and $8 million, finds itself swamped.

“There’s a lot of demand to do conservation in the state,” he said. In selecting projects, his agency asks “where can we prevent having a crisis 40 years down the road?

“We have a whole lot of Wyoming values wrapped up in the same bundle,” he said. Among those are agriculture and ranching, whose economic contributions are diminished when holdings are subdivided. “That makes these [issues] difficult.”

A new constituency that’s unfamiliar with those Wyoming values, or even its landscape, can give planners fits. In Sweetwater County, for example, officials have posted online a 10-page guide and warning about Red Desert property and what too-eager landowners might find.

Development pressure is changing the rural nature of Park County and other parts of Wyoming. (Dewey Vanderhoff)

“The elevation change on this parcel goes from 7,130 to 6,900 … a 230 foot drop!” the overview says of one tract the county uses as an example. “There is also a large drainage crossing the middle of the property leaving little room for development … IF you have legal access.”

On another page of the guide the county calculates that it could cost $1.4 million to build a road to another, isolated parcel. “And that figure does not account for engineering, easements, drainage, fill, excavation or culverts,” the website states.

In Park County, where planner Hill has seen building permits jump by 20% in the last year and small wastewater permits increase by 54%, the future has arrived. The county is revising its comprehensive plan and seeking to incorporate new wildlife migration information into the process.

“The face of Park County — we can expect it to change in the next decade,” she said. New arrivals bring new ideas.

“Sometimes they’re concerned there’s not more control,” Hill said, “whereas the locals think there’s too much regulation. I think the playing field is 50-50.”

Angus M. Thuermer Jr.

Angus M. Thuermer Jr. is the natural resources reporter for WyoFile. He is a veteran Wyoming reporter and editor with more than 35 years experience in Wyoming. Contact him at angus@wyofile.com or (307)...

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  1. Isn’t it funny how the brilliant elites always manage to create the worst situations? I had opportunities to join that crowd. Every day I thank God for the road less traveled. Imagine not caring that “the help” have no apartments while you bask in luxury and gripe about your wants…
    We chose a small town and limited amenities for our retirement because we never considered ourselves to be rich nor did we want to live in a place where prices are high and standards of behavior are questionable. I have lived in wealthy surroundings and there are always nearby areas where common people live normal lives and make a living keeping the wealthy fed and happy. In California there were ample highways and many cities nearby. Urban blight and new developments allowed older areas to house the lower income people and you could always find a place. I have seen it from both sides. You have to have a plan that allows the lower income body of workers a way to live nearby that includes schools and reasonable shopping. Speaking as someone who worked his way up from nothing, you need a fair chance to make a living. After that, capitalism will do the rest. Every town should have a mix of low to middle income housing. In the case of Jackson it sounds like profit taking off the boon in real estate prices was too tempting for locals and they sold off a good portion of the lower income rentals that served the working class. It is up to the wealthy to work with planners and lay out a community of rentals that is not destined for resale. This has been done successfully in many other places.

  2. Comprehensive Plans (and their resulting policies) are nothing more than virtue signaling, good old-fashioned redlining, and – in places like Jackson Hole – a favorite document for NIMBYs to hide behind when advocating against anything that might address community needs – but not their needs.

    And almost without exception in places like Teton County, the plans and policies discriminate based on class. Their comp plans never represent the true community preferences and real needs of resident blue collar workers. They usually favor wealthy, absent homeowners.

    In Teton County’s comp plan there is a emphasis, and imbalance, on things like protecting viewsheds for rich people – to the point of absurdity (97% of Teton County is already public land with some of the best unobstructed vewsheds in the nation). That in turn does great harm to Teton County’s working class by taking away development opportunities for workforce housing while enhancing and protecting the wealth of many non-resident property owners, or part-time residents.

    There is often an idealized and very naive thinking running through a comp plan’s foundational vision. Rarely do comp plans and their resulting policies actually address future community needs because the people writing them have no real understanding of how communities develop. Jackson Hole’s comp plan has failed spectacularly to address real community needs, but they protected the desires of wealthy special interests.

    In Teton County’s comp plan, the Town of Jackson was determined to be as the best place for workforce housing. That was what residents wanted or so we were told (no ballot went to every resident). And politicians insisted on it until none wanted affordable housing in their neighborhood. Their comp plan proclaimed that the ecosystem was our #1 priority for protection (above human life). But locals decided that protecting the ecosystem was a fiction if it imposed restrictions on their recreational needs. Not only did residents fight against the Palisades Wilderness Study Area becoming a wilderness area, but local governments kept pushing for more destructive tourism. For example, more and more short-term rentals were approved at the expense of workforce housing despite workforce housing, and less commuter traffic, being a comp plan priority.

    Comp Plans are flawed documents heavily influenced by special interests (often wealthy special interests), and shortsighted in their vision due to the inability of those who write them to see the future with any true sense of reality.

  3. Here in Sublette County the people came together and created a comprehensive plan and adopted zoning regulations, only to have the county commissioners override them to allow a rezone to a billionaire. If the elected officials will not adhere to the rules, it is a lost cause. Very sad.

  4. I grew up in the Adirondack Park in New York, during the 60s and 70s, when zoning was a hot topic and no one wanted it. The park agency forced it and today it is the only thing saving the high peaks area of the ADK. All I can say is do it now!! I also spent many year living in Jackson Wyoming and now own property in Pinedale, after living and working in Colorado and Utah and seeing what has happened in Utah, I am very concerned for Wyoming.

  5. The problems with those that either don’t wish to zone or are receiving conflicting information regarding zoning in their county should not be overlooked by property owners. Any sort of entity can move in; be it housing, wind farms, quarries, any type of industry or all of the above. It can really ruin a quite beautiful area very quickly. Once there, your way of life is gone forever.

    1. Mary- did you notice the faded Texas flag on its front shoulder ? Rode soft and put away dry , no doubt . And the West’s smallest electric fence pen . These are not truly horse people , but ¡ Viva Sam Houston !

    2. Too funny.

      We all need a plastic horse. With an electric fence. Maybe someone can send them Wyoming flag

  6. Meanwhile Wyoming is happily and busily ruining it’s own state with the full fledged encouragement and support of legislatures and quick money builders.

  7. The construction of these developments away from existing roads or near by towns leads to other problems for various Wyoming counties. Law enforcement and emergency services will likely lead to have greatly increase their funding and numbers if they want address far flung locations. Schools will now have to expand their services to collect the children. This in northern Albany county, includes the need for a snowplow to go with the bus in the winter. Numerous other services will be expected by resendences in these out lying developments.

  8. The Sublette County resort also reported, in other reporting on the Sublette County commisioners meeting they will not include or build other commericial retail developments at this location. What aapparently was not brought up was how could one stop others from taking advantae of this development and begin to greatly expand the size of Bonduranrt or other nearby areas.

  9. 25-30 years ago Carbon County was dealing with small acreages sold to buyers sight unseen. One Califronia based and so called “developer” received a small down payment from their client to own a piece of the West and then when payments ceased, easy repossessment and cycle all over again. Example, a buyer calling from Georgia for information on growing peaches north of I-80, photographs of properties misleading, no access.
    I was County Commissioner at the time– 1990-2004.

    1. Linda: I remember that situation very well. The out of state subdivider took advantage of the 35 acre exemption in Wyoming planning and zoning regulations which allow the sale of an unlimited number of parcels over 35 acres without going through the County approval process. As a result, the buyers bought totally unimproved Wyoming range land without legal access ( roads ), unfenced, corners were not surveyed or marked, no easements for utilities ( electricity ), no covenants, and no source of domestic water. Then, they ran crying to the County Commissioners who had not been given the opportunity to review the subdivision of the land. Finally, the County Commissioners had to say its your problem and we can’t help you – take it up with the developer.

  10. The good news is that I have no covenants or zoning regulations; the bad news is that my neighbor has no covenants or zoning regulations.

  11. Some [of us] saw this day coming some time ago. The ‘after affect’ is artificially inflated land prices that push all ‘locals’ out of the market, leaving the well to-do (usually out-of-staters) as the only ones able to afford their “little piece of paradise”.

    “Oh give me a home …” should be ‘Oh give Wyoming wildlife a home…’ before it’s too late!