Commissioners, 3-2, reject JFR 'guest ranch' expansion
Vickrey calls for vote to deny after hours of negotiation
SUBLETTE COUNTY – This time around, the tables turned slightly to slow billionaire Joe Ricketts’ driving ambition to create an expanded 1,400 acre guest ranch to serve future Upper Hoback resort guests and a smaller Dead Shot Ranch unit.
On March 7 before the Sublette County Board of Commissioners seeking their approval, Ricketts’ agent Morgan Fischer touted that for the first time, the county’s planning and zoning commission had approved Ricketts’ amended guest ranch conditional use permit application.
That had happened at the P&Z commission’s Feb. 16 meeting, after member Pat Burroughs moved to approve Ricketts’ amended CUP application with conditions worked out with Fischer.
The P&Z commission did vote, 3-2, to recommend approval of the expanded guest ranch CUP with 19 conditions attached, Sublette County Planner Dennis Fornstrom told the five county board members on March 7 at 1 p.m.
They are Doug Vickrey, Tom Noble, chair Sam White, Mack Bradley and Dave Stephens. Vickrey and Stephens had voted consistently against previous JFR planning and zoning applications.
Vickrey asked to make a statement before the anticipated hours-long discussion began, referring to the Wyoming Constitution’s State Code. “Remember that some things are not for sale. I am not for sale. Some things in this world money can’t buy and by God I’m one of them. ”
Jackson Fork Ranch attorney Ed Wood began by telling the five “everything you need to know” was in the amended guest ranch CUP application – to expand the current guest ranch from 478 acres around the existing Jackson Fork Lodge and dining room to JFR’s 1,400 acres, not to include the previously approved resort in the rezoned recreational service district.
If this CUP was approved, Wood said, the Dead Shot Ranch – now under a different owner – would be conveyed to Jackson Fork Ranch.
The five short-term rental permits on the Dead Shot Ranch would be canceled and new guest ranch facilities built farther south, including an 8,000-square-foot dining pavilion that Fischer agreed to reduce to 5,000 square feet.
That was one of several conditions requested earlier by the P&Z commission, as well a 30,000-square-foot limit on the total space of 10 new guest cabins for the guest ranch.
However, confusion arose among the conditions – ones Fischer wrote down, the resulting list approved by the P&Z commission and one referred to by Upper Hoback Road homeowner Dan Bailey.
Fischer referred to his list of nine “self-imposed conditions” for a total of 17, not in the same order as the P&Z majority-approved list. With the county commissioners, except for Chairman White, unaware of the extent of the previous Feb. 16 negotiations, Fischer was queried about limits and boundaries.
Several numbers to track throughout Tuesday’s meeting were 40 and 10, 215 and 999.
The first set referred to 40 adults in the Dead Shot guest-ranch cabins and 10 youth in a remodeled bunkhouse; 215 as the number of all overnight resort and guest ranch clients combined per Fischer’s estimation; 999 would be the number of special event and/or recreating guests allowed after county commissioners okayed the “by right use” of Ricketts to maintain the potential recreation and special event uses of the ag-zoned properties to under 1,000 people, or apply to the Planning & Zoning Office for a special-event permit.
Earlier, Fischer offered to limit the number of people recreating to 215 on the Dead Shot, later agreeing to say there would be no special events there. The 215 people recreating Fischer and Wood agreed to on the Jackson Fork Ranch could go up to 999 as well. These numbers for recreation and special events were flexible and shifted during the five-hour meeting, as did many other operating aspects of the proposed amended guest-ranch CUP application.
White’s concerns arose while discussing special events, asking Fischer and Wood for clarifications. Noble queried them about plans for the “by right uses.” Bradley’s points focused on the number of residential structures that would be allowed. Stephens questioned how 215 or 999 special event and recreating people would be fed and cleaned up after, as well as Ricketts’ helicopter use.
Throughout, Fischer and Wood revealed Ricketts’ vision that the guest ranch CUP and the added conditions applied to the Dead Shot location – after the amended CUP’s approval and its conveyance to Ricketts’ Jackson Fork Ranch.
“The Dead Shot is a separate unit,” Fischer said, later saying “special events” discussion “has never come up before.”
All the JFR team wanted to do is get amended CUP approval, open the guest ranch, build the resort and show what a good steward “Joe” could be with the resort open and the amended guest ranch CUP, Fischer said, “to have one unit our guests can recreate on.”
Some of these questions coming up March 7 were “never discussed,” according to Fischer.
Fornstrom agreed that one underlying CUP could contain all of the restrictions written in for each lot.
Fischer said he would guarantee that all forthcoming generations would abide by this CUP “to the ends of time.” He also offered to withdraw the current application but then returned to negotiate.
“I understand I need three votes from this board,” Fischer said to White, Noble and Bradley. “Mr. Vickrey and Mr. Stephens already spoke. So I’m speaking to the three of you.”
He questioned each of them and made further changes to his list.
“I’m ready to hear some public comment,” Vickrey said.
Many of those speaking via Zoom or in person have previously addressed Sublette County commissioners and P&Z commissioners about their deep concerns for changes coming to Bondurant and Hoback Basin if Ricketts won this round. None spoke in favor of the Upper Hoback Road resort or the guest ranch expansion.
Lisi Krall, who lives at the bottom of Upper Hoback Road, said Ricketts’ goal was “a large -scale commercial enterprise” that will be difficult to track impacts.
“It’s ambiguous and intended to be ambiguous.”
Bailey spoke again, noting the confusion and differing interpretations. “(Fischer) thinks he knows our concerns – he’s way off base. … If you have to make so many conditions on a CUP, it probably shouldn’t be happening.”
Some said the already approved Jackson Fork Resort could show how what good stewards and businesspeople the JFR team represented. Wildlife, traffic, construction effects and the “full plan” could then come to light.
P&Z commission chair Chris Lacinak said he spent 100 hours analyzing the amended CUP application and it held some good things but overall it did not align with current planning and zoning regulations and the Sublette County Comprehensive Plan.
“The CUP itself should be judicious and precise.”
The last to speak were Rosemary Benson, her son and her daughter, who have owned property for decades next to the Dead Shot, which was always an agricultural property.
Terms became ambiguous – “I’m not the only person who doesn’t understand what’s going on.”
Approval of the CUP couldn’t be reversed with an “oops,” she said.
For the first time that day, they heard about Ricketts’ purchase of more land that he might leverage for a land swap to gather the headwaters of the Hoback, urging the five to delay or deny a vote.
Fischer rallied to take another crack at commissioners. “This is our master plan. The confusion was around limiting the number of people for a special event. … You have before you in black and white a master plan.”
“Sublette County is at a crossroads – go left or go right?,” Vickrey said. “The application has some merit. My issue with it is one of the crown jewels of Sublette County is being desecrated … and we don’t know when it will stop.
Stephens said Fischer should put “everything in black and white” so commissioners know exactly what they’d be voting on.
Bradley said he didn’t like having one CUP with two different plans.
At 5:05 p.m., Fischer offered on the spot to “fine-tune these conditions” and continue negotiating with “a public work session.” Noble went through each condition, asking if any gave him “heartburn” and adjusting the terms.
Vickrey noted “total confusion” – “People in the audience don’t know what’s going on People need a decision made, one way or the other. It needs to be yes or no.”
“Having reviewed the eight criteria” for a CUP including the location and detrimental effects, Vickrey moved to deny the CUP. Stephens seconded it. Noble said he looked forward to continuing a “good conversation.”
Vickrey and Stephens voted to deny, joined by White, and Noble and Bradley voted to approve. Fischer jumped up; the audience applauded and the county’s business continued.