Breathing Space

The Wild Horse Ranch subdivision encompasses 14,800 acres of the eastern Laramie Plains below Sheep Mountain. In 2006, Brooks Realty and Advisory Group bought the ranch and subdivided it into 370 parcels. Photo:Greg Nickerson

With population growth generally continuing in the West, despite the problems in the housing-bubble states, there is no reason to expect an end to the demand for rural subdivisions. But many smart-growth advocates are taking the recession as an opportunity to catch their breath and try to steer development in a new, more desirable direction.

Foremost in the effort has been the Building the Wyoming We Want organization, also called BW3. The organization is partly funded by the state, but mostly by foundations like Ellbogen Foundation, Anschutz Foundation, and Rocky Mountain Power Foundation. BW3’s focus over the past year has been completing a survey of Wyoming residents’ values, and helping spread the word about the possibilities of citizen-directed planning.

The message seems to be coming across. Respondents to a 2009 BW3 poll showed a strong preference for a citizen-directed approach to land planning. When asked who could have the most positive effect on planning for growth, 32 percent chose “people like you and me”, while 21 percent favored state government and 20 percent looked to local government.

Platte and Goshen Counties are hosting a BW3 pilot project called the High Plains Initiative. The hope is to gather more public input on planning than ever before, to determine the will of residents in developing their community, and to ensure that the community’s vision is implemented. When the pilot project is done, the hope is that other communities will be encouraged to embrace this model for the planning process.

Anja Bendel of the High Plains Economic Development District, which is participating in the Initiative, says, “BW3 will draw more broadly on the public for input and produce not a plan, but a vision. For example, the Platte County Comprehensive Plan spent only about one evening talking about what was good in the county with a group of about 20 people.”

In contrast, Bendel says BW3 will “offer several hundred people a chance to voice their opinions.” The group hopes to use that input to document what residents would like to see 25 to 50 years into the future. Leadership will come from a joint steering committee of Platte and Goshen County residents and public officials.

The High Plains Initiative aims to build on the past efforts of planners and local officials by getting more citizens involved in revising the directions set in earlier planning documents.

“I hope that we can take what community assessments have already done and expand on those [findings] rather than repeating the process and getting the same data,” says Dan Brecht of High Plains Economic Development District.

When the High Plains Initiative planning work finishes in about 18 months, a committee will be established to maintain the plan, modify it as needed, and serve as a liaison to other communities interested in the process.

But Platte and Goshen Counties have faced relatively little development pressure in recent years. In Lincoln County, where development has been at a hectic pace since the early 1990s, the move to change how business is done is probably more remarkable.

Lincoln County Creates Incentives for Small Lots

Lincoln County, starting in 2005, instituted new planning rules that have stemmed the rush to subdivide rural open space and brought new life and infrastructure to unincorporated communities. The County’s planning efforts have encouraged compact development in Star Valley communities like Etna, Bedford, and Alpine by allowing both commercial and residential development in those same areas.

A spooked herd of elk runs along a fence line near the base of Sheep Mountain at Wild Horse Ranch. Photo: Ed Pfursich

New county regulations require developers to cover the costs of building paved roads and installing water lines in all lots smaller than 10 acres (most new subdivision lots in Star Valley are smaller than 10 acres, because larger parcels are rarely available). The developer is therefore motivated to make as much money as possible from lot sales to cover those increased costs. The way to do that is by creating many small lots instead of relatively fewer large ones – and the county therefore winds up with more concentrated, small-lot development.

Referring to a carrot-and-stick approach to guiding development, Woodward says, “We haven’t punished people, but we’ve sharpened the carrot.”

Lincoln County paid nothing out to encourage compact growth, and it’s actually brought in more tax dollars. Since new rules were adopted in 2005, County planner John Woodward says that 500 new one-acre lots were approved in the Alpine area, instead of the five-acre lots they had been seeing. The concentrated development brought in more tax dollars, helping to pay for a new sewer system.

Much of the growth is coming from commuters who work in Jackson, who prefer affordable small lots in a community to spending several hundred thousand dollars on a large parcel in a rural zone. Woodward says subdivisions with large lots have sold slowly, while small lots move much faster.

“Each time you create a lot in Bedford, you save five acres somewhere else,” Woodward says. Still, he acknowledges that what has been done in Lincoln County won’t work everywhere:  “‘Zone’ is a four-letter word in some parts of Wyoming.”

Communities Could Learn from One Another

Other efforts are underway to help Wyoming communities learn from one another’s planning efforts. Jim Whalen, director of the Sonoran Institute’s Partnership for Wyoming’s Future, is in the midst of a statewide survey to determine the status of each county’s planning regulations and zoning laws. He hopes to take stock of the variety of approaches in the state and offer new alternatives.

Planners are also in conversation. The Wyoming Planning Association (WYOPASS) meets twice a year to share knowledge and insight from around the state.

Joanne Garnett, a land-planning consultant in Sheridan and past-president of the Wyoming Planning Association and the American Planning Association, says of WYOPASS, “There is so much going on. As we’ve brought in more, younger planners, with new ideas, it’s given a shot in the arm in places like Cheyenne. And people like John Woodward [of Lincoln County] are making significant positive change.”

Meanwhile the university’s Ruckelshaus Institute is continuing efforts to educate the public about the planning process. In the past few years, it has produced reports detailing different ways to preserve open space — from land easements to tax incentives. A summary of the findings was released last fall in Wyoming’s State of the Space: A Comprehensive Review of Land Use Trends in Wyoming. (Link: https://www.uwyo.edu/enr/ienr/info.asp?p=11858 )

All organizations agree on one thing: Wyoming needs to create incentives for the kind of growth citizens say they want to see, and make it harder to break up open space. Perhaps that means building on Lincoln County’s example.

“I hope what happens is that these 35-acre subdivisions become less of a path of least resistance, says Jim Whalen. “I would hope communities could give such great incentives and benefits to people that they will want to live in the community. I hope the communities grow, rather than have unregulated subdivisions that create sprawl and burdens on taxpayers.”

Once communities create high standards for development, the benefits are long lasting, according to Diana Hulme of the Ruckelshaus Institute.

“Good development breeds good development,” she says. She advises local officials to hold developers on a shorter rein, and reshape or reject poorly wrought subdivision proposals. She reminds officials that “if they ask for something that improves the community, most likely they will get it.”

In 2003, Cheyenne proved the truth of this statement when it bought the Belvoir Ranch for open space, an effort spearheaded by Cheyenne city planner Matt Ashby. Residents had approved spending their tax money to protect the open space and provide recreational opportunities.

This willingness to pay to protect open space exists across the state. A 2007 poll developed by the Ruckelshaus Institute, the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, and the Wyoming Chapter of the Nature Conservancy indicated that 70 percent of voters favored funding conservation through the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust.

Learning From Other States: Conservation Design

Part of the problem is getting Wyoming residents to raise their expectations, says Jim Whalen at Sonoran Institute’s Partnership for Wyoming’s Future.

“The culture in Wyoming never expects enough,” he says. “We take what they give us and we don’t expect more.”  Though there may be well-planned developments just across the Colorado border, Wyoming people think, “This is somehow more than we deserve,” Whalen says.

Wyoming lawmakers have looked to other states for good development models. Colorado statutes provided the model for a conservation development bill (Link: 18-5-401 http://legisweb.state.wy.us/TITLES/STATUTES.HTM) passed by the Wyoming Legislature and signed into law by the governor in 2008.

The new law gave counties an optional process for encouraging conservation developments like that created by John Jenkins in Johnson County (Link: https://wyofile.com/2009/09/new-johnson-county-land-wars/ ). If developers agree to preserve two-thirds of a parcel of land for agriculture for 65 years, then the remaining one-third qualifies for a “density bonus.”  That means homes can be clustered above the usual allowable density of two lots for every 35 acres, without having to go through a re-zoning process. Proponents see this “conservation design” development as a good way to preserve open space and cut down on infrastructure costs.

Are developers receptive to clustering housing to preserve open land? Tres Brooks of Arizona-based Brooks Realty Company says he is.

“We are looking at that approach to see if that is as attractive to folks,” Brooks says. “Would they like to have 10 acres and then 100 acres of open space to ride their horse? What is more appealing? Would they rather have that, or the forty acres?”

Even though counties have new powers for regulating large developments and encouraging conservation design, it is uncertain how many will put the new tools to work. Lincoln County adopted the state statute. Park County has its own density bonus process for developments that preserve half of the acreage in open space. Teton County has had a similar statute in place since 1994. Laramie and Johnson Counties are looking into adopting the law, and Sheridan County is working with Clarion Associates to create conservation design regulations for all subdivisions. The rest of the state is split between those uninterested in the new law, and those waiting for other counties to try it out first.

The tax issues with classifying land within subdivisions as agricultural should have been resolved by a 2009 state law, (Link: 18-5-403 http://legisweb.state.wy.us/TITLES/STATUTES.HTM) but on the local level in Johnson County, developer John Jenkins has not yet reached agreement with the Johnson County assessor, who for 2008 counted what he calls “agricultural land” in his development at rural residential values.

Citizen Involvement and the Shaping of Growth

Diana Hulme of the Ruckelshaus Institute says there is a significant gap between the coming up with a vision and implementing it through new county planning rules.

“People say, ‘I’d love to see open space and a trail, and a development here,’ but when the decision-makers try to write code, then the people come out of the woodwork,” she says.

The same conflicts also arise at the state level. Getting the legislature to further regulate development is unlikely to be the way to change how Wyoming grows.

“It is not a matter of more regulation, it’s a matter of more incentive,” says Jim Magagna of the Wyoming Stock Grower’s Association. “I think it’s gone far enough with the legislation. We’ve given the counties some tools. We certainly don’t see a need for greater regulatory regimen. You can’t go further with regulation without it being an infringement on property rights.”

Instead, smart-growth advocates want citizens to learn about the tools for land planning and get inspired to participate in the process. Diana Hulme says hesitation only leads to problems.

“Don’t not plan yourself into a planning nightmare. Failure to plan makes you plan eventually,” she says. She hopes her group can “show how great it is when people do go after the vision. It’s exciting to have open space.”

Terry Cleveland has a similar hope for his effort.

“I will consider BW3 a success if, across the width and breadth of the state, the people of Wyoming think about what is important to them, and assure that as their communities grow in the future, they retain those things,” he says.

Joanne Garnett, past-president of the Wyoming Planning Association, says Wyoming has come a long way toward embracing the planning process since she first worked in the region in the late 1970s. She sees the state coming together in new ways.

“I’d like to think that the bulk of us are in this together, trying to make sure it stays the state that we do love, that we don’t wreck it, and we pass it on in a good way,” she says.

Tres Brooks says he is among those interested in making future growth work for all parties.

“I don’t like the stigma of the guy that comes in from Arizona and breaks up all these ranches,” he says. “I’d be happy to be on a committee to figure out how it works for a developer, the county, and the state. I love the state of Wyoming. I want people feel good about what we do.”

There may be reason for optimism. Wyoming still has the opportunity to make changes that are no longer possible in neighboring states. Unlike the Front Range of Colorado, Wyoming still has a low population, and as Terry Cleveland puts it, people in this state “have the capacity to decide what they want for their future.”

WyoFile correspondent Greg Nickerson is a graduate student in history at the University of Wyoming. He has worked as a historical consultant for the Wyoming PBS documentary Drawn to Yellowstone, and is a speaker on the Wyoming Humanities Forum.

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.