Teton County lawmakers, other officials and environmental watchdogs have accused a state agency of running roughshod over local governance, threatening in the process both local water quality and community’s rights statewide.
The Office of State Lands and Investments drew heavy criticism last week for allowing a leach field to be installed for a “glamping” site on sensitive state school trust land in Teton County in an area with already troubled groundwater.
In granting its approval, the OSLI changed what the overseeing State Board of Land Commissioners approved for Basecamp Hospitality, LLC. It justified the departure from the already fraught and contested policy by deeming the leach-field plan as “largely similar” to what had been proposed and approved.
The land board, which is made up of the state’s top five elected officials, approved an 11-unit luxury camping operation in June. The “off grid accommodations facility,” as land office Director Jenifer Scoggin described it, will host guests in modular A-frame rooms and domes placed on raised platforms.
Development of the site is to include “[a] self-contained septic system … to ensure safe removal of sewage and wastewater,” according to state documents. The Basecamp project is being built on 4.6 acres of a 640-acre school trust section near Teton Village and the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort.
But the Utah-based glamping company is instead diverting “graywater” — wastewater other than sewage — to a leach field and sending “blackwater” containing sewage to a tank that would be emptied periodically and disposed of.
Teton County legislators grilled Scoggin and deputy Jason Crowder on Wednesday, charging that Basecamp’s work didn’t meet approval requirements. Construction “was not jibing with what they said when they applied,” Sen. Mike Gierau (D-Jackson) told Scoggin at last week’s meeting of the Joint Appropriations Committee.
The leach field plan, however, is “largely similar” to what the board approved when it OK’d what documents described as “a self contained” system, Scoggin told the committee.
“[T]he black water would be in a closed-loop system and trucked out and pumped out on a regular basis,” she said last week. “[G]ray water from showers and sinks and whatnot would be allowed to go into a septic tank and be diluted from there.”
“They alleviated our concerns about being something separate than what they reference to the board,” Scoggin said, “and so we considered that something they could move forward with.”
Bad faith charge
The Legislature launched the project by ordering the lands office in 2020 to solicit development proposals for Teton County’s school trust lands. School trust lands are constitutionally dedicated to maximizing revenue for schools and institutions, and land in Teton County is among the most valuable in the West. Basecamp predicted $2 million in annual revenues based on 17 units, including an estimated $199,800 in annual revenues to the state school trust account.
The board also approved a plan by the local company Wilson Investments for an 800-unit shipping-container storage development and stockpile site on 8.4 acres on the state school parcel. The storage units would rest on crushed gravel and operations would generate $329,580 in the first year, and $1.6 million for years one through five.
The state’s schools account would receive $6.6 million if the storage operation ran for 20 years, the company states.
Sen. Gierau told fellow legislators on the Appropriations Committee that lax rules and enforcement affect more than just Teton County.
“This problem is going to come to your door,” he said. “OSLI is going to be faced with folks coming in wanting to do leases in front of grazing permits, in front of ranch operations.”
Teton County Commissioners said the development should not have been permitted as a temporary use. Instead, both projects should have been considered under long-term special use permits that require more oversight.
In any case, the two developments should comply with local zoning and land-use laws, the county said in an Oct. 24 letter to the state.
“We will be informing both permittees to cease all work until the proper permits have been obtained from Teton County,” Teton County Commission Chairwoman Natalia Macker wrote the state land board.
The letter argues that Scoggins’ office acted in bad faith by advising the Board of Land Commissioners to issue five-year temporary permits “to avoid compliance with both the state statute and Board of Land Commissioners rule requiring compliance with all applicable land use planning and zoning laws.”
The temporary use permit rules are “a little vague,” Scoggin told the Appropriations Committee. But she denied they are being used illegitimately and instead of more restrictive special use permits.
“We certainly don’t want to be using the temporary use permits to do an end run around the requirements for a longer term,” she said.
“It may well turn out that the glamping and storage units are not appropriate for this kind of site,” she said. “But we are giving ourselves the ability to ascertain that through this short-term arrangement.”
Temporary permits “cannot be renewed,” land office Deputy Director Crowder told the committee. At the end of a temporary lease, “they’re expected to reapply,” he said.
“The Board of Land Commissioners … has an ability to reanalyze that use again and reissue a brand new temporary use permit,” he said. The land office uses the same serial number for the renewal as the original temporary permit, he said, “so, on the surface, it looks like they’ve been renewed.”
No local control
State power structures are being upended, Teton County told the state land board in its October letter.
“We have not been able to argue the merits of the case because the Wyoming Board of Land Commissioners argued that county governments can never ask a court to review the actions of the state government,” Macker wrote about a failed legal appeal. “We are concerned that the Attorney General is making an argument on your behalf that counties are no longer separate government entities since per this precedent the county cannot seek review of actions by the state of Wyoming.”
Neighbors, who opposed the two developments, continue to be upset. Basecamp is “feeding us a story” and “ OSLI seems complicit with Basecamp,” neighbor Jared Smith told Teton County Commissioners last week.
The watchdog group Protect Our Water Jackson Hole said the septic system should be torn out, arguing that the state already considers the surrounding Fish Creek area impaired by E. coli. “It appears that Basecamp has broken its promise,” the group’s Executive Director Meghan Quinn wrote.
Meantime, Basecamp is working to resolve its issues, Ryan Thomas, basecamp CEO, wrote in an email to WyoFile. That includes work with the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality, which is permitting the wastewater systems. The company also is working with the Wyoming Department of Transportation regarding an entrance to the development off of state Highway 390, an additional change since the application.
“We are working diligently with the OSLI team, DEQ, and WYDOT to ensure everything we are doing is constructed appropriately,” Thomas wrote.
Wilson Investments did not return a phone call seeking comment.
Neighbor Smith’s statement underscored fears of a vanishing heritage, a trend that groups like Protect Our Water are trying to reverse.
“When I was 7 years old,” he wrote, “my Aunt Muggie taught me to flyfish at the headwaters of Fish Creek about 200 yards west of the Basecamp glamping development site.” Today, the health department has posted signs saying it is unsafe to go in the water or eat the fish, his statement said.
He urged enforcement “so that my granddaughter, Eliana, can hopefully have the same flyfishing and inner tubing experience that I enjoyed as a 7-year-old growing up on Fish Creek.”