The Sublette County saga surrounding commissioners approval of a Bondurant billionaire’s request to rezone 56 of his 1,300 or so acres for a resort continues to simmer.
Seven Bondurant residents are asking the courts to consider reviewing — and, by extent, “vacating” — the Sublette County Board of County Commissioners’ 3-2 approval of TD Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts’ rezone request, an approval that would pave the way for a new 15- to 20-unit resort along Upper Hoback River Road.
And, in their court filing, neighbors contend that Ricketts’ most recent proposal is out of line with how they interpret a previous assertion he made in a letter to Sublette County commissioners in 1998. That decades-old letter described limited development of his roughly 1,300 acres as consistent with community goals for the area.
By press time Tuesday, Ninth District Judge Marvin Tyler had not said whether he would grant the residents’ petition for judicial review, filed by attorneys Jim Lubing and Kevin Gregory of the Lubing Law Group.
Lubing did not return multiple requests for comment.
Neither did one of the seven petitioners or Lisi Krall of the Hoback Basin Coalition, which challenged Sublette County Commissioners to defend in writing their decision in a Guest Shot in the Dec. 22 News&Guide.
A Ricketts representative also declined to comment.
The filing sets up the next installment in a years-long fight over the future of the agricultural, northern corner of Sublette County. On one side is Ricketts, whose 11th hour $750,000 donation clinched a $8.75 million buyout of 58,000 acres of natural gas leases in the Hoback River basin. On the other: Bondurant dwellers who feel Ricketts’ conservation ethic has gone astray and don’t want to see the town become resortified like Jackson Hole.
“My concern is not so much with that specific project but that it opens the door for multiple projects of that type in this area that would destroy the character of this basin,” said Dan Smitherman, a Bondurant resident who didn’t join the appeal but supports the intent.
The appeal is a reaction to the Sublette commissioners’ split vote, which authorized rezoning 56 of Ricketts’ roughly 1,300 contiguous acres along the Upper Hoback River Road.
That approval came after the Sublette County Planning Commission recommended against approving the rezone request, and after the elected Sublette commissioners denied roughly a year earlier a similar proposal. The commissioners argued then, in the summer of 2020, that the resort plans didn’t jive with the county’s comprehensive plan.
The recently approved plans for the resort were scaled back slightly, with the size of the primary lodge cut and replaced with duplex and triplex-style rental homes and plans calling for 15 to 20 rather than 45 units, among other changes.
But the disconnect between Sublette commissioners’ past decision and their most recent decision is part of the reason the seven residents — Dan Bailey, Dolores Kominsky, Mary Krall, Richard Pearson, Steve Robertson and Dennis and Marti Seipp — are appealing.
Per the petition, the Bondurant residents described the commissioners’ decision as “erroneous” and “inconsistent” with the decision commissioners made a year prior, the planning commission’s recommendations, and the Sublette County Comprehensive Plan and Master Plan.
But they also raised concern that the Sublette County commissioners’ final order codifying the approval was issued without “making any findings” in regard to the proposal’s compliance with the Sublette County Comprehensive Plan or county code.
In Teton County, planning decisions made by county commissioners are followed by formal orders that spell out how, exactly, the application met conditions required in county code.
The Sublette County order does not do so.
The Sublette Examiner reported that Commission Chair Joel Bousman, who voted in favor of the rezone, briefly explained his decision to the room Dec. 7.
But the two other aye votes, Sam White and Tom Noble did not, the Examiner reported.
“Given that [commissioners] failed to make the foregoing findings, and the clear conclusion to be drawn from the historic facts of this matter that such findings could not be made, Petitioners contend [the commission] erred in its approval of the application and its adoption of the final order,” the petition for review states.
While advocating for a separate rezone requested by Hans R. Graf, from whom Ricketts bought roughly 478 of his 1,300 or so acres, the businessman wrote the 1998 letter to Sublette County commissioners saying that he planned to leave his recently purchased property “primarily undeveloped” and place the majority of the 1,200-plus acres he bought in Bondurant under a conservation easement.
The petition for review, attached to the online version of this article, includes that letter.
Limited development, Ricketts wrote in the letter, contributed to the “goals and objectives” set forth in a county resolution and Sublette County Zoning Masterplan.
“This is true because it is my intent to leave the property which I have purchased primarily undeveloped, and I am abandoning the plan expressed in Firebrand Ranches sale brochure of splitting the property into six different tracts for sale and development,” Ricketts wrote.
The News&Guide was not able by press time Tuesday to obtain a copy of the resolution or learn how the Sublette County Commission voted on Graf’s rezone request in 1998.
But Ricketts’ communication, the seven appellants argued, confirmed that his company, Jackson Fork Ranch LLC, had argued to county commissioners that “development of the subject property” is inconsistent with the “goals and objectives” of the county zoning masterplan.
John Carter, an ecologist who lives in Hoback Ranches and said he’s bought land in the area to preserve, said he was “unsympathetic” to Ricketts’ ask.
“He claims to be a conservationist but when it comes down to the rubber meeting the road, he’s willing to sacrifice that ideal for whatever personal interest he seems to want there for that resort,” Carter told the News&Guide. “I can’t justify that in any way, shape or form.”