What a Land Rush Brings

Yet many argue that when developers sell the dream of country life, the result can spoil the rural qualities buyers wanted in the first place.

“If a lot of major ranches in Wyoming end up in the same situation as B.B. Brooks [development in Casper], Wyoming won’t look the same as it does today,” says Terry Cleveland of Building the Wyoming We Want.

During the Wyoming subdivision rush of recent years, people across Wyoming started questioning the effects of eliminating open space. They had concerns about how development affects wildlife, and how much the new demands on infrastructure cost neighboring municipalities.

Subdivisions can powerfully influence wildlife behavior. Woven wire and buck-and-rail fences create barriers for big game. The mere presence of roads, cars, houses, domestic cats, and dogs in remote areas can have negative effects on habitat, and cut off wildlife migration routes between summer and winter range.  Developments also create predator-free havens for whitetail and mule deer, causing their populations to explode, while other pests like the house sparrow and brown rat displace native species.

People living in rural developments also face challenges in meeting basic needs, like having a reliable source of water. Unless lot owners happen to have access to a community water line, they will have to drill a well or haul water from a municipal source.

A map in the Wild Horse Ranch land office shows the locations of parcel owners from California, Arizona, and Colorado. Buyers hail from 40 states, Canada, England, and Mexico. Photo: Greg Nickerson

Information provided by Brooks Realty Company shows that about 20 owners in the Wild Horse Ranch have drilled successful wells; one well came up dry. A number of owners dispense with wells altogether and haul water from a municipal source in Laramie, according to Brooks Realty. During WyoFile’s tour of Wild Horse Ranch, a flatbed trailer holding a stock tank full of water was spotted driving on a county road toward the subdivision.

While the problem of finding a water supply initially rests with the property owners, a broad lack of supply can eventually lead to expensive infrastructure projects, paid for by local and state government. That happened to Sheridan Area Water Supply system, which expanded to supply hundreds of rural homes in 1996. Subsequent development then gravitated toward the pipeline, creating further pressure on water and land resource

(Link: Wyoming’s State of the Space https://www.uwyo.edu/enr/ienr/info.asp?p=11858

Rural subdivisions also create public costs through the necessities of road maintenance, police and fire service, and school buses. A 2001 study by the American Farmland Trust showed that rural developments nationwide end up costing counties $1.40 in services for every dollar they bring in. A University of Wyoming study the following year showed that rural developments in this state cost about $1.13 for every dollar they create in taxes. (Link: The Cost of Community Services for Rural Residential Development in Wyoming https://www.uwyo.edu/openspaces/content.html ) Many in Wyoming think that developments need to pay their share of the costs.

Alarm Bells

Until the 2008 legislative changes, Wyoming statutes were so lax on regulating large subdivisions that developers practically had incentives to split up large landholdings such as farms and ranches. The absence of subdivision regulations for lots over 35 acres encouraged developers to take the easy path and chop up open space into large chunks.

The trend toward larger development went directly against Wyoming residents’ demonstrated preference for maintaining open space. A 2002 University of Wyoming study showed that 96 percent of those polled felt it was important to maintain land and water in agricultural production. Of the various reasons for preserving land, over 90 percent cited the importance of open space and wildlife habitat.

When these attitudes came up against the reality of the land rush, Wyoming heard its wake-up call. Diana Hulme of the Ruckelshaus Institute at the University of Wyoming recalls that by 2008, “Wyoming was getting near the tipping point of, ‘We really need to do something better.’”

The subdivision that became the poster child of bad development was owned by none other than Brooks Realty.

The 41,000-acre B.B. Brooks Ranch, which starts just two miles north of Casper, went from a sheep pasture to an 800-lot subdivision in a little over a year.

Brooks Realty bought the ranch for $175 an acre. The ranch is advertised as containing approximately 41,000 acres — so at that price, Brooks Realty paid about $7,175,000 – far more than any neighboring rancher could afford.

A parcel map greets visitors and lot owners as they enter Wild Horse Ranch subdivision off of Wyoming highway 130. The 370 lots on the ranch encompasses 14,800 acres adjacent to Sheep Mountain and around the shores of Lake Hattie. About 9,000 acres of state and federal land are within the boundaries of the development. (Greg Nickerson photo)

After Brooks Realty drew up a plat for 798 forty-acre lots, put in 100 miles of gravel roads, and set up an ad campaign on the Internet and national television and in USA Today, the property went on the market starting at $995 an acre. The potential gross revenue, using those numbers, would be $31,760,400– or a 343 percent net gain on the purchase price, before expenses. It’s an impressive moneymaker for Brooks Realty; some say, at the expense of the county and local residents.

When the new development started filling in, Doug Cooper, a rancher who is neighbor to the development, witnessed a chaotic onslaught of travel trailers, miles of barbed wire fence on the ground, trespassing ATV drivers, cattle with no identifiable owner, and roofing material wind-scattered across the plains.

“Suddenly everything changed,” he says. “It is a lot different than people imagined. It’s a nightmare.”

With the image of the B.B. Brooks Ranch fresh in their minds, legislators went to Cheyenne in 2008 and passed the new law that that allows counties to regulate subdivisions with lots between 35 and 140 acres. (LINK: statute, Title 18-Ch 5- Sec 316 http://legisweb.state.wy.us/TITLES/STATUTES.HTM)

The new law says approved subdivisions must provide plats with documented ingress and egress, register contracts for deed, and submit water studies if planning officials require them. Developers have to demonstrate that they have a merchantable title to the property and sufficient funds to complete the project.

In addition, the new law requires developers to resolve water rights issues with the state engineer, and to obtain recommendations from the local conservation district regarding soils suitability, erosion, sedimentation, and flooding problems.

Finally, the law calls for realtors to give buyers a clear explanation of mineral rights, water supply, sewer systems, fire protection, and road maintenance regimes.

Doug Cooper, the neighbor to the B.B. Brooks Ranch, contributed some of the ideas for the legislation:

“I was thinking if we smarten up the chump [the buyer] we would have less problems,” he says. “It gives us a framework to start from. We wanted people who are becoming our neighbors to be more fully informed.”

The fact that only five counties have acted on the new legislation shows how strongly Wyoming counties tend toward a laissez-faire approach to land-use policy, letting things take their own course, without government interference.

Luther Propst, director of the Sonoran Institute in Tuscon, says this is normal for the region.

“Unfortunately my experience around the West is that counties will almost always go through the same kind of path, starting with denial, ‘Not a problem here,’” he says. “Then a big development [comes in]. They only act when they’ve lost one big egregious development. That motivates people to do something about it.”

Propst wonders if communities can learn from each other, or if they have to watch a large, local ranch broken up before they see that they’re vulnerable to wildcat development.

Now, the reduced economy has slowed the pace of development. Doug Bryant at the Albany County planning office says that right now only one subdivision is pending, for six lots in the county.

Tres Brooks has felt the slowdown, too — but he’s still selling lots almost every week. And, he says, once he’s sold 80 percent of Wild Horse Ranch, he’ll start looking for more Wyoming land on which to build his next project.

Gregory Nickerson

Gregory Nickerson worked as government and policy reporter for WyoFile from 2012-2015. He studied history at the University of Wyoming. Follow Greg on Twitter at @GregNickersonWY and on www.facebook.com/GregoryNickersonWriter/

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  1. Fences are the future, apparently. Residential development never pays for itself. Too bad they don’t allow these types of subdivisions only for commercial development, not for residential.

  2. Excellent article. WY still has the framework for statewide land use planning on the books, and the State did an excellent job of outlining the objectives for land use planning back in the late 80’s. Unfortunately, the State never picked up the ball and ran with it. This is one small step, but it is hardly holistic in its approach. Prior comments have sentered on Carbon, Sheridan and Johnson counties, but there are very few counties that have not been impacted by these ex-urban developments that cut roads, create dust and drainage problems, but return very little to the purchaser or local government; only the developer makes out well as shown by the article.

  3. I have worked for years on this issue and am very disappointed that Carbon County Commissioners during the past five years have moved backward on land use and open space issues. We are letting land brokers and developers carve up Wyoming for a huge profit at the expense of all of us-the buyers of the lands and also all of us that love the visitas that attract us to Wyoming.

  4. County commissioners in Sheridan County at one time thought 35 achers were too expensive for people and by making them buy that much would curb buying land. That is not the case. Only areas near towns should be subdi vided and then same as the town into lots not acres not 30 and 35 acre plots. We are using up all of Wyomings beautiful land for houses.