BONDURANT — In a showdown pitting Wyoming values of property rights against the desire for a quiet, rural lifestyle, Sublette County commissioners came down on the side of property rights last week, approving a billionaire’s high-end resort and stunning his neighbors who said it would forever disrupt their iconic mountain valley.

By a one-vote margin, the county board approved a zone change for 56 acres to allow TD Ameritrade founder and bison rancher Joe Ricketts to build an exclusive retreat with 64 rooms among a main building and eight cabins. Ricketts, whose family owns the Chicago Cubs and who is reportedly worth $4.6 billion, told his neighbors in Bondurant that the resort would enable his grandchildren to keep his Jackson Fork Ranch bison operation running as a wide-open agricultural pursuit.

“I just put money into it every year,” he told about 70 people in the Sublette County Library — and a similar number online — last week. “If I give it to them [the grandchildren] they don’t have the money to put into it.”

Opponents see a case of wealth riding roughshod over the public will and the locally developed land use plan.

Joe Ricketts’ investment website features this photograph of the TD Ameritrade founder. (JoeRicketts.com)

It was Ricketts’ second bite at the apple — the county rejected his plan for the resort in 2020 — but his agent Morgan Fischer said the newly scaled-down project addressed previous worries. Aside from Ricketts, Fischer and commissioners Joel Bousman, Sam White and Tom Noble, none of those attending last week’s hearing spoke in favor of the development. The county’s planning and zoning board had recommended against the rezone twice, saying it didn’t meet requirements of the county’s land use plan.

As Fischer described the resort, it would invite urban residents to experience ranching and open space, spurring them toward an enlightened ethos.

“They will go back with a newfound appreciation for that,” Fischer said. “Ideally that will foster what Joe is trying to promote.

“He wants to take his conservation heart,” Fischer said, “and put it on display on his ranch.”

Where the deer and antelope play

Ricketts, 80, touted his conservation legacy in support of his guest ranch development. He gave big money to help preserve the nearby Noble Basin in an oil-and-gas buyout. He played a critical last-minute role in that $8.75 million conservation deal in 2012 that protected a vital wildlife link between parts of the Wyoming Range and critical wildlife habitat farther south.

“I was the person that started that,” Ricketts told the standing-room-only crowd at the Sublette County Library on Dec. 7. “I was the person that funded it all through Trout Unlimited and with the help of many, many other people that joined us.

The funky old-time Elkhorn Bar and gas station, seen in a 2014 iteration, stands as a Bondurant landmark. (Angus M. Thuermer, Jr./WyoFile)

“That cost me a few million dollars,” he said, a donation he hadn’t  previously touted. “I’ve never said anything about it until today,” Ricketts told the commissioners.

Developing the 56 acres would continue that conservation effort, he said.

“The only way we’re going to preserve [the Jackson Fork Ranch] is [with] those tourist dollars,” Ricketts said. “I don’t know of another way that I can generate enough income to take care of it.”

Fischer suggested a Sword of Damocles hangs over the ranch. Without the financial support of a resort, the scenic spread of more than 1,000 acres along about 7 miles of the upper Hoback River could be subdivided into a maze of 36 ranchettes, each 35-acres, he said.

That a paradise would have to be developed to save it, that a billionaire conservationist had no other means to protect and preserve his own property, brought disbelief and a suggestion that Ricketts’ immense wealth is more than adequate to support the bison operation and keep the land open.

“The only way we’re going to preserve [the Jackson Fork Ranch] is [with] those tourist dollars.”

Joe Ricketts

“He’s got money, I know he does,” said longtime Sublette County resident Tyler Wilson, who lamented the influx of city folk. “They’re going to be going up in the forest bothering the deer,” the Boulder denizen said.

Wyoming Game and Fish Department maps show the Sublette Mule Deer migration route crossing the ranch in several places. But Gov. Mark Gordon’s executive order protecting migration routes does not apply to private land, Commission Chairman Bousman told the audience.

Further, the two parcels targeted for development are located where they would have the least impact on wildlife, Fischer said. Plus, that targeted property is unsuitable for hay cultivation, Ricketts told the commissioners.

Former Gov. Dave Freudenthal and the late Wyoming Sen. Grant Larson, to his left, applaud at a ceremony in Jackson recognizing the Nobel Basin buyout in which Ricketts played a key role. (Angus M. Thuermer, Jr./WyoFile)

A Game and Fish Department letter recognized the development is planned on “crucial elk and moose winter year-long range” and is in the Wyoming Mule Deer and Pronghorn Migration Corridor protected by Gov. Gordon in 2020. The agency recommended that ranch operators continue to work with the agency to minimize disruption to those wildlife values and not to work construction between Nov. 15 and April 30.

Josh Coursey, Muley Fanatic Foundation founder, offered a different take than Ricketts on sustainability. “What is sustainable,” he told the commissioners, “is wide-open spaces.”

Citified?

Ricketts and Fischer said the resort would have driver services to and from the Jackson Hole Airport. Visitors would stay at the ranch, not add significant traffic to the gravel county road up the upper Hoback, they said. Resort parking would be underground.

Nevertheless, area resident Tracy Tominc fretted. “When you bring in city folks driving their GPS up that road, that is the opposite of anything that anybody in this room, other than Mr. Ricketts and his money — and the people sitting next to him because of money — want,” he said. “There is no good reason jamming humans up the upper Hoback is a good idea.”

Wyoming Game and Fish Department maps show mule deer migration routes through the Jackson Fork Ranch, which covers much of the white, private property southwest of Highway 189. (Wyoming Game and Fish Department)

Speaker after speaker pointed north to Jackson Hole and said they didn’t want the pressures and types of development there to leak into their community only about 35 miles away. The zone change would open the floodgates, they said.

“All you have to do is … look at what happened to Jackson,” D.J. Kominsky told commissioners. “Just a little more, just a little more …”

The zone change upends land-use planning the community relies on, said Dan Bailey, an upper Hoback resident. “By opening that door, we begin the process of tearing down the comprehensive plan,” he said.

Lisi Krall told the board that Bondurant is one of the country’s last intact rural agricultural areas. “That historical character is disappearing,” she said. “One seemingly insignificant change in zoning laws” could lead to “that disaster to the north of us.”

Steve Robertson argued that Ricketts’ plan doesn’t mix with ranching. “An exclusive mountain resort community doesn’t neighbor well with ag,” he said.

Ricketts’ plan would help diversify Sublette County’s economy without ruining its character, Fischer assured commissioners and the audience. “There’s no ice cream store… no bike store that’s going to come,” he said.

No opinions, please

The board should rely on consultants and others — from traffic engineers to the Game and Fish Department — who analyzed the development, Fischer said.

“We have to rely on experts,” he told commissioners. “If we were to rely on opinions, I don’t think we would get anywhere. To discount Joe’s experts and rely solely on public opinion might be a bit misguided.”

It didn’t take long for commissioners to decide on the zone change, to the chagrin of Tominc and others. Tominc said later the board didn’t address the 10 findings required under regulations for a zone change.

Chairman Bousman, a fourth-generation Sublette rancher, supported Ricketts after outlining the challenges of running stock on the land. “Ranching in Sublette County … because of the cost of winters and economic situation, is not easy without some extra source of income,” he said. “It’s been that way forever.”

In its approval, the board OK’d a condition to adopt the Game and Fish recommendation to cease construction between Nov. 15 and April 30.

Bousman said change is inevitable. “We can’t stop that, short of building a wall around Sublette County,” he said, “a wall around Bondurant.”

A bison on Ricketts’ Jackson Fork Ranch. (Angus M. Thuermer, Jr./WyoFile)

This story has been clarified to refer to Morgan Fischer as an agent, the way he is listed on planning documents — Ed.

Angus M. Thuermer Jr.

Angus M. Thuermer Jr. is the natural resources reporter for WyoFile. He is a veteran Wyoming reporter and editor with more than 35 years experience in Wyoming. Contact him at angus@wyofile.com or (307)...

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  1. Our county commissioners are spineless pawns and care nothing for the residents they supposedly represent. They only care for their wallets and the funds their position ensures them to receive. Too bad it’s a good ole boys club that will never get voted out or have compassion for the land they claim to care about.

  2. I do not believe any of us here in Bondurant are so naive to think that Ricketts needs to build a resort to preserve the ranch. So what are the real motives? Billionaires like to live around other billionaires. The resort could be just the beginning of a very bad outcome.

  3. On the issue of property rights, one has the right to apply for a rezoning, but one does not have the right to automatically be awarded the rezoning if it goes against the County Regulations. The Commissioners in their hearing must review the criteria in the Regulations in order to justify and defend their position. In this case only one Commissioner went through the 10 criteria, the 10 Commandments as they themselves called them, to justify their vote. That was Commissioner Vickrey who voted against the rezoning request.

    1. Melissa: Town councils and County Commissioners generally cannot make whats called”arbitrary and capricious” decisions; that is, their decisions must be made based on existing regulations adopted by public procedure – State agencies must follow the Administrative Procedures Act. For a decision as important as this is to your community a former ” Findings of facts and conclusion of Law” should be drawn up which clearly documents how and why the zoning decision should be made. Provisions in your Land Use Plan should be quoted and referred to in this document. Again, arbitrary and capricious decisions are not allowed. There is a well known Wyoming Supreme Court case I call the Sheridan funeral home case where the court ruled against the city council for making an arbitrary and capricious decision concerning their rejection of a funeral home. They had no grounds in statutes or ordinances to deny the application. If you believe an arbitrary and capricious decision was made in your zoning case, it should be appealed to the District court.

      1. P.S. It is the responsibility of your County Attorney and County Planner to advise and guide the County Commissioners such that they follow the correct procedure as layed out in your land use plan and do not make an arbitrary and capricious decision.

    2. Melissa: For high profile cases like this one, it is important that the County Clerk accurately and inclusively prepare minutes of the county commissioner meeting which will be preserved in the County’s records forever in “the vault”. Unfortunately, most meeting minutes are abbreviated to such an extent that its impossible to reconstruct the actual testimony later. Your County Clerk undoubtedly made a tape of the meeting which can prove to be crucial. Another way of making the record clear, is to submit written comments and ask the chairman to order them appended to the official meeting minutes – that way, they can’t be abbreviated in the official meeting minutes. You should attend the next meeting of the County Commissioners and review the minutes at the same time the commissioners are reviewing and accepting them. You should also request a copy of the original tape that the County Clerk made. If you should decide to appeal to the District Court, you will need all of this documentation and it must be complete.

    3. Good Point. I do not have property in that area, but were all the regs followed, were all the studies done on the impacts, especially to the poor soul who purchased property there expecting to live a quiet life and the wildlife for example.

  4. Last I checked, a billion was a THOUSAND million. Mr. Ricketts does not need to make money off his property.

  5. As a property owner in Jackson since 1983 and witnessing first hand what happened there, one can only assume the same fate will befall in Bondurant where the billionaires buy out and over ride the millionaires. Such a sad story. We are witnessing first hand the death of the American west. I don’t know where we are headed, but we are way ahead of schedule.

  6. This decision to re zone with little discussion is no surprise in Sublette County. The local commissars have never followed common sense or science. From air and water quality to health issues (Covid 19) they defy standard modern thought. These issues are best solved at the voting booth and by the election of more thoughtful and educated locals.

  7. Every Community thinks they will be different. Teton County thought they would be different than Aspen and Vail. Now Sublette County thinks they will be different than Jackson. It is a slow decline that is hard to notice over a short time period, but long time residents notice the decline. Some leave. Others stay on because they feel like they have no other choice.

  8. How many times do we need to witness this scenario? Money interests can’t resist changing things to match their ego-driven, personal wishes. Show me a pristine landscape that is improved after being “developed”…

  9. We see again a fundamental truth about money: throwing money at things when you have lots of it isn’t generosity, but bribery. Ricketts has gotten what he wanted.

  10. Oh, if only he would buy up all the Upper Green high country grazing leases instead , and let his Native American bovine roam up there. Win-win

    Sorry, Albert Somers and Larry Hicks, but sometimes the highest and best use of the land is … leave it alone.

    1. Good question. And it would be interesting to know of any financial contributions made to the commissioners by Ricketts.

  11. Joe Ricketts net worth=2.7 billion dollars. Just a guy down on his luck who needs a little extra cash flow to support his 1000 acres. Im sure a conservation group would have loved to pay him millions for a conservation easement, but he would have to prove he actually cared.

  12. Dude ranching billionaire. All for it. It is his property. He does care about protecting the wide open spaces to a large degree, and this is economic development – although of the worst kind once running (low wage tourism). Will it be the next Jackson? Never. Will it bring more development? Probably.

    This being good or bad is nothing compared to government trying to over-regulate private land. Some regulation is fine (who wants a county trash dump next to thier home). Government has way too much power over too many decisions in regards to private property. In Teton County, they actually shot down private development of affordable housing (Hog Island). In this case, they were having a hissy fit over 56 acres in the middle of nowhere.

    NIMBYs and politicians need to get off the backs of private property owners. Stealing their rights to utilize and monetize their land as they see fit is not the Wyoming way.

  13. As I sat for 3 hours and listened to neighbors from Bondurant to Boulder to folks calling in I’m speechless that the commissioners had total disregard for their constituents Rickets and Fischer talk out of both sides of their mouths. One minute saying there will be no traffic, the next saying the residents will be welcome with open arms. A giant parking garage underground? For bison winter storage? The employee discussion was the best, somehow they are going to have all the employees they need they will bus them in as well. From where? SLC. RICKETS Knew that his property was zoned Agricultural, why didn’t he buy in a resort zoned area. The county commissioners have opened the door to sprawl development in one of the last beautiful corridors in the Northwest corner of Wyoming. with the 2 of Teton county’s largest problems housing/employee shortage and private Septic systems bleeding into headwater streams, the commissioners turned a blind eye. Rickets team was given over an hour of floor time to sell their project. The public was shut down and shut out!!!
    Remember these guys when you go to vote again!!!!! This was an appalling demonstration of the democratic way!!!! APPALING. We’re these commissioners paid off?? Is developing Bondurant and Agricultural zoned areas their answer!!!! Appalled
    They have all the rights we have with our property. They’ve selfishly ruined the rights of their neighbors. MONEY ORVER WILDLIFE.
    Kathy Harrington

  14. The Ricketts venture approved by the Sublette county commissioners is simply the wrong model.ll The history and evolution of the Yellowstone club in Montana is instructive.

  15. VERY informative. Mr. Ricketts ‘sounds’ like a real good -and sincere- conservationist -and apparently, puts his money where his heart is.
    I would do almost ANYTHING to live in that exact spot…-as it is right now – with the Buffs as my ‘nextdoor neighbors’… 😉
    Seems to me that;
    1) ‘change’ is inevitable, -as the only constant in life, is change.
    -and 2) to preserve all that grand environment, -very, very tight- controls -MUST- be installed in not only the construction, but on how guests are allowed to ‘use’ the land. All enforced with very serious legal and monetary consequences. If only this could happen…

  16. Really? $4.6 billion and can’t afford a 56 acre ranch without development? Kids can’t afford to run it? Put a conservation easement on it and create a trust to fund the ranch. Sheesh!

    1. Its a lot bigger than 56 acres – closer to 700. But still, the Nature Conservancy would take it on in a heartbeat.

  17. On the one hand, comprehensive plans and land use refs are the best tool a community has to codify their vision of what the landscape and highest and best use of their land should be. I am personally disappointed that such a plan was modified for this development. On the other, let’s look at who votes for the Commission and who they voted for. Sublets county is strongly conservative with a libertarian bent, and every single person I know who lives there speaks endlessly of property rights. Protecting them, preserving them, keeping government off of them. So then they vote for elected representatives who are in line with this philosophy: “Property rights are sacred and must be protected from government intrusion”.

    So then I am bewildered when people who vote to preserve property rights, are suddenly clutching their pearls and crying corruption and scandal when the representative they voted for does exactly that! I agree that zoning and land use planning are important public processes that should be respected, but if I don’t elect people who share that view I should not be surprised when they put very little stock in zoning or land use planning.

    This reminds me of the Harriman area in Laramie County, which is not zoned, and that’s what people love about it. They can have chickens and build outbuildings and have private roads not wide enough to fit a brush truck down. They want a quiet life free from government telling them what to do. But then a quarry moves in and wants to start operating next door, and suddenly they flood the DEQ and County Commission begging government to stop the quarry from happening…. It’s maddening hypocrisy that makes it hard for me to generate sympathy.

    I am sorry that this development is moving forward despite the clear public wishes, codified in the comprehensive plan. I don’t wish that this had happened and I feel sorry for the people who it is happening to. Simultaneously I hope the people of Wyoming, writ large, learn that protection of property rights extends to all of your neighbors and your own back yard, not just to the federal at state regulators. So please stop voting against your own interests and electing people who dismiss the tools provided by statute and codified through public process as just government overreach.

    1. Jordan: Excellent comments and very well informed. The Bondurant/Upper Hoback land owners can actually petition the County Commissioners to create a separate, localized land use plan – separate from the rest of the county – which better reflects their desires about how the area can be managed. Doing so would require getting involved and taking zoning seriously. As a note, the County Commissioners decision can be appealed to the District Court and then on to the Wyoming Supreme Court if need be.