Judge upholds Jackson Fork resort-rezone approval
Resort gets green light; expanded guest ranch on hold
SUBLETTE COUNTY – The judge reviewing the county’s 2021 majority approval to rezone 56 acres at Jackson Fork Ranch for a destination resort in the rural Hoback Basin upheld the controversial decision in his Dec. 27 order.
Opposing Bondurant citizens did not make a case to establish their standings as “aggrieved parties,” and Sublette County commissioners’ rezoning approval was a legislative action that can’t be challenged in court, as could an administrative action, wrote 7th District Court Court Judge Joshua Eames.
On Oct. 11, 2021, Jackson Fork Ranch billionaire owner Joe Ricketts’ and his agent Morgan Fischer applied to rezone about 56 acres of agricultural ranch land on the north side of Upper Hoback Road as a “recreational services district” complete with a resort, restaurant, lodge and cabins.
The 2021 rezoning application was amended from one the previous year, when commissioners had denied it. They expressed little support to developing Bondurant and Hoback Basin as a resort destination.
Ricketts’ revised application was also opposed in scores of public comments, letters and statements. The planning and zoning board split its vote, 3-2, to oppose its recommendation to the Sublette County Board of Commissioners. Final decisions on zoning and rezoning applications are made by the elected five-member board at its next regular meeting after a public hearing.
Fischer shepherded the second 2021 rezoning request through the Sublette County Planning Office staff review and the citizen Sublette County Planning and Zoning Commission’s public hearing process.
This time, Ricketts himself appeared before the county board of commissioners and the public, painting a picture of need for revenues to secure his grandchildren’s future at Jackson Fork Ranch.
Despite massive opposition and little visible support, elected commissioners Joel Bousman, Sam White and Tom Noble voted to approve the resort-zoning resolution with commissioners Dave Stephens and Doug Vickrey voting “nay.”
Although Bousman had advised public commenters to stick to the 10 required criteria to consider for rezoning, none of the three voting to approve provided any specific verbal reasons for their votes – even after a groundswell of public criticism.
Seven Bondurant citizens and landowners filed a petition Jan. 6, 2022, in 9th District Court for a judicial review, arguing the county’s rezoning decision lacked detailed analyses that the resort rezoning process would require.
Judge Marv Tyler reassigned the petition and after several district court judges passed on hearing the case, Judge Eames accepted the file.
On Nov. 10, citizens’ attorney Kevin Gregory, Jackson Fork Ranch’s attorney Matthew Turner and the county’s special attorney Paula Fleck of Holland and Hart presented oral arguments before Judge Eames via videoconference. He took his decision under advisement.
In his Dec. 27 decision, Judge Eames noted under Wyoming Rules of Appellate Procedure, “any person aggrieved or adversely affected in fact” by an agency action can request a judicial review.
But to have that status or standing, the person “must have a definite interest exceeding the general interest in community good shared in common with all citizens,” that is substantial, immediate and pecuniary, h.e wrote
The citizens argued the commissioners’ resort-rezone approval “undermines their ‘investment-backed expectation’ as property owners,” he noted.
But they did not prove their connection to the rezoned land to be affected by more than “possible outcomes” of dust, noise traffic, environment and affordable housing, the judge wrote.
Another shortfall he cited was not showing citizens’ individual properties in relation to public or private roads or how each would be specifically affected by this rezoning.
In a 2017 case, Tayback v. Teton County, the petitioners had standing because they “provided photographic proof that their view was affected” by those commissioners’ decision and raised specific complaints of worksite dust and noise, the order says.
The court’s review of whether or not the Sublette County commissioners “substantially complied with its own rules” is limited because rezoning is a “legislative act” that is not appropriate for a court to “correct,” not an administrative act, the judge said.
“The court can, however, review the (Sublette County Board of Commissioners’) action to determine whether it substantially complied with its own rules,” Judge Eames wrote.
The citizens argued that commissioners violated county zoning regulations “by not ‘openly considering’ the 10 findings that must be contemplated before a district boundary change,” but the judge agreed with the county and Jackson Fork Ranch that they did so.
“The plain language of the rules suggest that the Board is required to take into account the 10 factors laid out in the Zoning and Development Regulations, not to maje specific findings on each specific factor,” the order says.
A county board of commissioners’ interpretation of this regulation cannot be called “erroneous” so “the decision is affirmed.”
The resort’s first phase proposed in 2021 was for a 15- to 20-room lodge and two four-bedroom “cabins” for guests. Estimating guests at two per bedroom, the first phase could bring about 72 guests expected to stay three days with an estimated 18 employees for all hotel duties and maintenance.
The 2021 proposal dropped onsite employee housing, adding six more “fellow cabins” in phase two for perhaps another 50 resort guests. Most employees would be housed at Ricketts’ existing residential properties along the Hoback River, according to that proposal.
All access would be via Upper Hoback Roa, the county-maintained dirt road, from its intersection with Highway 189/191 to the resort’s to-be-constructed access drive across the road from existing ranch buildings.
Plus the guest ranch...
Jackson Fork Ranch’s most recent 2022 application – to amend its existing guest-ranch conditional use permit (CUP) for 278 acres and 15 guests to include the entire Jackson Fork Ranch and newly acquired Dead Shot Ranch’s 1,300 acres with 50 guests.
This proposed guest-ranch expansion is totally separate from the now-clear resort development and together could create a commercial guest ranch-resort lodging and special-event complex with well over 200 total overnight guests at one time.
The Dead Shot and Jackson Fork Ranch are only connected by the county-maintained Upper Hoback Road. It is the only public road from Highway 191 to follow the Hoback River west and is used by other landowners, residents, hunters, hikers, outfitters, riders and other recreationists going to the Upper Hoback trailhead and beyond, the headwaters of the Hoback River.
The road also provides access for Bridger-Teton National Forest various permittees and employees, including Bondurant and Sublette ranchers who turn out livestock on surrounding public allotments for summer grazing.
On Dec. 6, Fischer withdrew the amended guest-ranch CUP application at the last minute before a tough crowd and Sublette County commissioners at their public meeting.
He promised to return with a more complete presentation.