A Cheyenne district court judge is bothered by a state law requiring maximum financial return from school trust property in Teton County, a law that sparked a dispute over a glamping development near Teton Village.
State actions made him shake his head, Judge Steven Sharpe said Oct. 2 as he ticked off things that upset him about House Bill 162 – State Trust Lands Proposal and Study. Teton County claims the 2020 law is unconstitutional because it treats state land in Teton County dedicated to school funding differently from similar land in other Wyoming counties.
At issue is leasing and development on a high-value and scenic mile-square section near the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, including construction of a glamping operation of geodesic domes that Gov. Mark Gordon called “pimples on the landscape.” Teton County believes the development on school trust land violates lease terms set by the State Board of Land Commissioners, including that developments be temporary and comply with local regulations.
Yet when Teton County tried to enforce local regulations, the state sued the county, arguing that local government lacks the authority over state property, regardless of the lease terms.
Sharpe, the Cheyenne judge presiding over the suit against Teton County, said the state action “seems to be targeted at Teton County.” Wyoming’s top five elected officials, including Gordon, sit on the Wyoming Board of Land Commissioners.
Some of the development, which includes erection of container storage units, “appears to the court to be a long-term arrangement,” not temporary uses, Sharpe said. He seemed befuddled that the state said local regulations would apply to development but now wants the court to declare that they do not.
“All those things bother me a little bit,” Sharpe said. “Overall I have some concerns about the way the [State Board of Land Commissioners] handled this.”
Sharpe said he would rule on issues as time allows.
To comply with the HB 162 law, the state land board approved several temporary-use-permit leases on the 640-acre Teton Village parcel. Developers Basecamp Hospitality began building a complex of 11 geodesic domes for glamping along with a leach field critics say is too close to open waters.
Basecamp is the principal worry, Teton County’s attorney Keith Gingery said, because it may further harm the Fish Creek watershed. Critics want the “hotel,” as Gingery called it, to meet fire and electric code and undergo local inspections.
Teton County tried to halt the development but Sharpe blocked that effort in June to first resolve the county’s ability to challenge the state. In that challenge, Gingery says HB 162 is clearly flawed because it violates the Wyoming Constitution that calls for uniformity in the treatment of state lands.
“That direction [in the HB 162 law] is unconstitutional,” he told the judge. It’s improper to “change the standard lease from fair-market value to maximum value” in one county alone, he said.
“This is where they were going to hope to balance the budget for the State of Wyoming,” Gingery said, by generating revenue from high land values. “We argue Teton County was targeted.”
Teton County also believes the state issued five-year temporary permits for uses that should have more stringent regulations and conditions required in longer-term permits.
“The state’s having to bring gas lines — boring underneath the state highway — [and also granting] lengthy easement to the power company,” Gingery said. “Clearly this is more than a temporary use — a hotel will be on this site and continue to operate,” he said.
“People [are] coming to stay at a hotel that we don’t know is safe.”
State officials don’t know what’s going on, Gingery said, and ignore their own lease terms, conditions and rules. County residents are frustrated.
“Cheyenne is a long way away,” he told the judge. “The state thinks things are happening up here” to make permit holders comply but “that’s not happening.”
State claims authority
State Assistant Attorney General Patrick Miller called HB 162 “a very simple bill … to do a study.”
The state’s action “doesn’t seem insidious,” he said. “We don’t believe Teton County was targeted.
“We’re dealing with state property,” Miller said. “The county is trying to stop the development in a way we think is unreasonable.”
Jim Peters, senior assistant attorney general for Wyoming, promised the judge “there will be future inspections.”
“There is an enforcement mechanism,” he said of ongoing safety worries. “The state has just as strong an interest that state lands are safe.”
Sharpe also is considering a request by Citizens for Responsible Use of State Lands, a nonprofit representing Teton County landowners, to join the suit.
“This is a case [that] the people who are actually affected ought to be part of,” attorney Bill Schwartz told the judge. Teton County cannot adequately represent citizens who formed the nonprofit, he said.
One reason is that Teton County uses the state land to stockpile gravel and flood-fighting riprap. “Mr. Gingery is not exactly in a very good position to argue the [temporary-use permits] are contrary to the Constitution when the county itself is taking advantage of them,” he said. Protect our Water Jackson Hole, another citizens’ nonprofit, also is contesting the Basecamp development.