Background: Land and markets in Johnson County

Although it might come as a shock to many, Johnson County has a master plan for land use–one that envisions retention of rural open space and ranches, and relatively compact development around the towns of Buffalo and Kaycee.

But the Wyoming Supreme Court some years ago made clear that a master plan has no authority unless a county also passes zoning ordinances.  That, Johnson County can’t quite seem to do, although it is trying.

Johnson County planner Rob Yingling, a former Navy chief petty officer and financial analyst who moved to Buffalo from Maryland nearly a decade ago, says the county has been working on zoning for several years.

“We’ve got a tough nut to crack. I’ll probably be retired by the time we get zoning passed here,” Yingling said in an interview with WyoFile.

Still, he said,  “It’s better than it was ten years ago when we had people at meetings yelling and shouting at anyone who talked about zoning.”

Johnson County is bordered to the west by the Bighorn Mountains, which rise up to 13,167 feet in elevation. The Powder River drainage, roughly 3,670 feet in elevation, makes up the eastern part of the county.

This makes for a county of contrasts. The western mountainous region is highly valued for upscale real estate, particularly along the base of the range. In the east, scant rainfall and rolling sagebrush intersected by the rugged Powder River Breaks make this part of the county traditionally a place for large ranches.

Regardless of topography, Johnson County has long been a conservative bastion. Only tiny, poor, ancient (it has the state’s highest median age) Niobrara County on Wyoming’s eastern border with Nebraska has more registered Republicans and Libertarians than Johnson County.

Johnson County ranchers are only slowly moderating their views on zoning, which they have long seen as a personal challenge to their control over their own land.

“Lots of people in the agricultural community have the philosophy that we don’t need planning,” said Gerald Fink, chairman of the Johnson County Board of Commissioners. “Some years ago we had some zoning meetings that were very emotional and sometimes I wondered if they were about to erupt into violence. Very strong feelings.”

While they recognize that traditional ideas and feelings about land use do not address current problems, ranchers seem lukewarm about the standard solution, i.e., zoning regulation. Yet, they are beginning to endorse it. Wayne Graves, a tall, lean cattleman from Barnum who sits on the Johnson County planning and zoning commission, has watched land-use debates in the county for a long time. He says the rancher who today favors some zoning “is the one who wants to stay in this way of life forever. They can’t stand seeing the county chopped up into little pieces.”

Graves has seen this up close. In 2006, a neighboring rancher, Nicky Taylor, divided 53 acres of her property into “Outlaw Acres,” a 20-lot subdivision within sight of the Graves’s front porch.

About a dozen adjacent land owners showed up at the planning and zoning meeting to protest Outlaw Acres, according to Yingling. They objected to the new development  as an intrusion into an area because “it was ranch country and should be maintained as ranch country,” said Yingling.

They also objected that the project was 17 miles from the nearest town, Kaycee, so that providing basic services would be a financial burden on the county.  Graves said the cost of plowing roads and providing ambulance service to subdivisions such as Outlaw Acres “would tax us right out of this nation.”

“It was not a good place for rural subdivision,” said Yingling flatly.

Not one lot in Outlaw Acres sold. The entire 53-acre subdivision is up for sale as a single parcel.

Still, Graves admits that for him, zoning has been– and still is– hard to embrace.   The idea that a bureaucracy, which he called a “panel of little white gods,” can tell a man what to do with his property clearly galls him.

“We’re approaching the situation where if a man’s barn door blows down on Friday night, he’s got to wait until Monday morning to drive 50 miles to town to get a permit to fix the door,” says Graves. “Meanwhile, what happens to his stock? Do we ignore the law or do what we have to do?”

Though that particular scenario clearly couldn’t happen, even in, say, heavily zoned California, it resonates in the imagination of a rancher.

As often happens, on issues ranging from wolves to guns in hide-bound Wyoming, if Johnson County remains resistant to zoning, most likely someone from outside the county will end up deciding what happens.  This is a bitter pill for Johnson County, whose attitude could be summed up in a bumper stick occasionally seen around Buffalo or Kaycee: “Johnson County: We haven’t trusted Cheyenne since 1892.”

The landscape is changing, however. Johnson County’s population grew from 6,145 in 1990 to 8,464 in 2008, a jump of 38 percent. Since 2001, 46 new subdivisions have appeared on Johnson County’s map. The number of building permits climbed, although nobody knows how steeply because Johnson County keeps no records of housing or building permits. (The city of Buffalo does, but lost all records of housing permits issued from 1990 to 2000.)

With the past year’s economic slump and a drop in prices for the natural gas Johnson County produces, now both the local population and its government are having revenue troubles.
Under economic stress, land planning efforts are usually the first to go.

“Unfortunately, with the declining economy goes the desire to control sprawl,” said Ray Rasker, head of the Bozeman, Montana-based Headwaters Economics.

Sprawl is too strong a word for what’s going on in Johnson County. As of 2007, there were 1.1 houses per square mile. Compare this to 14 houses per square mile for Gallatin County, Montana, or 166 units per square mile in Boulder County, Colorado.

Samuel Western

Samuel Western of Sheridan is a university lecturer, poet and U.S. regional correspondent for The Economist. He is the author of Pushed Off the Mountain Sold Down the River: Wyoming’s Search for Its...

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