A private club that meanders along the Snake River south of Jackson is being required to secure after-the-fact permits for building an unauthorized levee, berm, ponds and a bridge.
Acting on a complaint from the Bridger-Teton National Forest, a Teton County planner, engineer and floodplain administrator visited the Snake River Sporting Club on Aug. 10. A week later Teton County wrote a letter to property owner Christopher Swann instructing him to start the process of rectifying two flood-control projects and a bridge built without their knowledge.
Officials for the Bridger-Teton and Jackson Hole Land Trust are not saying whether the projects violate national forest or land trust regulations.
The county, meanwhile, is asking Swann to procure a long list of documents, assessments and approvals. The Sporting Club did not get — but now needs — floodplain development permits, zoning compliance verifications, an updated environmental assessment, an updated aquatic resources inventory, mitigation plans, a bridge permit and more, according to the county’s letter.
“This letter is in the property owner’s hands, and these are the remedies that we saw fit,” said Tyler Sinclair, Teton County/Jackson joint planning and building director.
If any permits are denied it will trigger a county process to determine if the Sporting Club must demolish any of its riverbank modifications, Sinclair said.
Swann told the News&Guide early this month that he believed he toed the line of the law when adding flood-control infrastructure to the Sporting Club and adjacent Snake River Bend Ranch properties in the last several years. Now that the county has determined otherwise and that the projects needed an array of OKs, he said he will do what’s necessary to get back in the authorities’ good graces.
“We want to put this behind us and do what the county is asking us to do, the Forest Service is asking us to do — or any other agency, for that matter,” Swann said last week. “We have no desire to get crossways with anybody.”
The county’s recent admonishment of the Sporting Club is the latest hiccup for developers who, going back decades, have been trying to protect themselves from the Snake River’s natural migration. Even before it was built on the former Snake River Bend Ranch, the project was fiercely opposed by conservation groups and river users who worried that building close to the Snake in a floodplain would inevitably require fending off the revered river to protect private property.
During the height of the pre-development debate, the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance and Greater Yellowstone Coalition tried, and failed, to use litigation to stop the luxury golf course and ranchettes from being built.
When Teton County hammered out final conditions for approving the club’s development in 2003 the discussion took seven hours and commissioners voted to attach 76 conditions to the final development permit. Commissioners held the meeting at Snow King Resort to accommodate the crowd closely following the final decision, which came after three years and 30-some public meetings.
At that time commissioners voted unanimously to prohibit dikes, levees and retaining walls. Commissioners also added a provision requiring the developer to seek county approval before building erosion control measures such as “bendway weirs,” submerged rock structures. River users feared armoring the riverbank to prevent erosion would spoil the Snake’s free-flowing nature.
Jim Darwiche, then a county commissioner, echoed those sentiments, telling developers in 2003 that “as much as you have a right to protect your land, we have a right to protect the interest of the people who live in this place.”
Because of its location alongside a “Wild and Scenic”-protected and navigable waterway, the Sporting Club must deal with an array of regulatory and land management agencies to OK riverside work such as bank stabilization, or modifications to more inland areas. Besides Teton County, the Bridger-Teton National Forest, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality and Jackson Hole Land Trust are all potentially brought into the fray when work in and around the river is proposed.
Swann visited his property with representatives of Teton County, the Bridger-Teton and the Land Trust the week after the News&Guide published a story about riverside construction that caught the eye of Bridger-Teton river ranger Dave Cernicek.
‘Wild and Scenic’
Cernicek, who also coordinates Wild and Scenic Rivers Act issues for the Bridger-Teton, has not been authorized to talk to the press about Wild and Scenic regulatory compliance at the Sporting Club. Jackson District Ranger Mary Moore, who accompanied Swann on the forest’s site visit, has been on leave for the past two weeks and was unavailable for an interview.
Swann characterized the compliance check-in with Moore as a success.
“She had no concerns that she felt needed to be addressed in the short term,” he said in an email. “It was a very positive and productive meeting. As such, the Forest Service has effectively withdrawn their email complaint and is deferring to the county.”
Where it flows by the Sporting Club on its way toward Palisades, the Snake has been protected as a “scenic” stretch of river owing to the 2009 Snake River Headwaters Legacy Act. The legal teeth of the designation comes from the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, which covers less than 1 percent of the nation’s rivers and streams, and celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. Scenic stretches of river are “free of impoundments,” with shorelines and watersheds still “largely primitive and undeveloped,” according to a federal description of the act.
Like all mountain snowpack-fed rivers the Snake’s nature is to move around, the result of seasonal flows that fluctuate ten to twentyfold in any given year and transport an incredible volume of sediment downstream. That natural tendency and its “scenic”-protected status in the canyon make large developments in the river’s historic floodplain, like the Sporting Club, incongruent in the eyes of people like federal government watchdog Phil Hocker.
“The canyon is a marvelous place,” Hocker said, “and part of the whole idea of the Wild and Scenic designation was to maintain that sense of marvel, and not just make it a ditch through an intermittent set of human intrusions.
“I don’t think there’s any way to do something [at the Sporting Club] that isn’t eventually going to look like a floodwall holding a flood back,” he said. “They can drive a half mile of sheet piling and paint it green, but that’s not what a Wild and Scenic river is about.”
The Wild and Scenic Act’s application requires careful reviews of manipulations to the Snake and other scenic rivers between their high water marks, but its purview also extends onto private land when projects are visible from the river.
Other entities are charged with oversight of activities on the Sporting Club’s private inland property. The Jackson Hole Land Trust has been tight lipped about the Sporting Club’s compliance with its conservation easement agreement terms. More than 400 acres of Swann’s land are protected by 15-year-old Land Trust-held easements, which restrict activities like altering habitat or grading and filling land. The financial underpinnings of conservation easements are proprietary, but typically they provide tax benefits to encourage conservation-minded landowners to protect their land in perpetuity.
Citing landowner confidentiality policy, Land Trust staff denied an interview request, and emailed questions went unanswered. Land Trust staffers visited Swann’s properties Aug. 15 for a compliance check.
“Representatives of [the Land Trust] visited with a Cygnus Capital representative on the properties last week,” Land Trust Conservation Director Liz Long said in an email. “Per our standard follow-up procedures, we are currently reviewing that visit and, as always, will conduct any needed follow up with the landowner.”
Ponds behind berms
That follow-up, potentially, will address a 10-foot-high riverside berm that the club has erected in possible violation of a Land Trust easement that dates to March 2003. Dick Edgcomb, the property owner at the time, was in process of building the Sporting Club’s forebear, the Canyon Club, which eventually went bankrupt. Swann inherited the easement’s terms, which promote open space and habitat conservation, when his firm, Cygnus Capital, purchased the property with plans for a major reinvestment in 2013.
The easement, which is a public document, expressly prohibits levees, dikes and retaining walls. At the same time, the easement states that “bank stabilization” work is allowed as long as the Land Trust is notified and the work has the “least impact on the natural quality of the Snake River and its recreational values possible.”
While on a tour of the site Aug. 7, Swann said that the berm, approximately opposite from the Snake’s Pritchard Creek confluence, had nothing to do with protecting his land from the seasonally swollen Snake River.
“We’re just improving the pasture, trying to make it flatter,” Swann said.
When the News&Guide asked Swann to look over the top of the berm, he said no.
“It doesn’t have anything to do with the river,” Swann said.
“There’s not like a hole,” he said. “There are private horses in there and stuff, so we’re not going to get in there.”
Days later News&Guide photographer Ryan Dorgan photographed the area with a drone. Behind the berm the aerial photos show two ponds and, at the time of the drone flight, several piles of construction debris set ablaze.
The ponds and berms are located on top of, and are now blocking, the historic inlet of “Trout Creek,” an occasionally navigable channel of the Snake River that was controversially labeled its own waterway while the Canyon Club was in the approval process. Critics threw shade at “Trout Creek,” arguing it was an attempt to circumvent a countywide 150-foot development setback from the Snake River, but the plans approved by Teton County recognize the channel as a watercourse — and still do.
Old debates could be revived
The Snake River Sporting Club’s manipulation of this watercourse, whether officially a creek or a river channel, could reopen discussion about Trout Creek’s merits. During the club’s impending zoning compliance application for the already completed work, the county will need to characterize the water body in order to determine what, if any, rules were broken, Teton County senior planner Hamilton Smith said.
When Smith and his county colleagues visited the site the berms were described differently than they were to the News&Guide, and were called flood-control infrastructure. The ponds may have been accidental, Smith said, the result of infill from excavations next to a major river where the groundwater is shallow and connected.
“There’s a bunch of material and it was put in this location to stem the potential flow of water,” Smith said. “It’s material, it’s new, it’s being addressed as an impact.
“We will have mitigation and rectification through after-the-fact permits,” he said.
The county’s letter to the Sporting Club described the alteration as approximately an acre in size, and 140 feet long. An area of the riverbank susceptible to flooding had been raised 2 to 3 feet, the letter says, and berms were created in excess of 10 feet high.
Swann declined to clarify the discrepancies between the accounts he gave the county and News&Guide.
“I’m not going to get into what this or that is, or whatever,” Swann said in an interview last week. “The county has investigated it, the forest has been out there, and we’ve had Land Trust out there. We’re working with all our partners, and we’re going to do what they ask us to do.”
Snake River boatman and Jackson Town Councilor Jim Stanford reported the berm and blocked channel to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on Monday, asking for action.
“If this work — or other bank stabilization projects in the vicinity — were done without the required permits or violate federal law, please take enforcement action and require the landowner to remove the structures,” Stanford wrote in an email to Army Corps regulators.
Past experience gives him reason to believe the manipulation of the riverbank violates the federal agency’s rules.
“I know that, because in 2002 I reported a similar violation in the exact same spot,” Stanford said. “The Army Corps of Engineers investigated, found it was illegal and forced them to get rid of it.”
The Army Corps’ Wyoming regulatory office hasn’t heard from the Sporting Club with a permit request since 2010, according to Mike Happold, the office’s director.
Two other recent Sporting Club riverside projects also improperly lack permits, according to the county’s letter.
A 60-foot-long, 8-foot-wide bridge that spans a relic braid of the Snake River was built without notification and without necessary approvals. An updated environmental assessment, mitigation plan, sufficiency determination, after-the-fact bridge permit and floodplain development permit are all needed to comply with county regulations, the letter says.
Touring the site, Swann described the water that flowed under the bridge as outflow from irrigation on the club’s ranch and golf course. The structure was not crossing the Snake River, he said, but a man-made diversion.
“All of this water is coming from the diversion,” he said.
But mud caked onto the bridge’s surface suggested the channel had been inundated as recently as this spring, and the county’s letter states that natural wetlands would “likely persist” in the absence of irrigation.
Teton County planners also faulted the Sporting Club for building a 300-foot-long “boulder trench” between the Snake and the golf course’s 15th hole.
Swann told the News&Guide that the levee-like structure was built about 40 feet inland, but now is located on the riverbank because of rampant erosion over two days this June. The flood-control structure was approved by a 2013 Teton County agreement, he said, and needed no further consultation or notification as long as it was smaller than 12,000 square feet.
County says it wasn’t asked
The county’s letter contends that the county didn’t authorize the structure.
Discussions five years ago were a part of the “pre-application conference” process, which is conducted before an application is submitted. Those talks provided neither approval nor permits for the excavation and boulders that were buried last year, the letter said.
“This development of a boulder trench is unauthorized and will require the following actions to remedy the unpermitted development,” the letter read.
The actions are numerous, and include a certified engineer’s survey and site plan, updated environmental assessment and aquatic resources inventory, after-the-fact floodplain development permits and more.
Longtime observers of the Canyon Club-turned-Snake River Sporting Club saga say the flood fight that’s again making headlines does not surprise them.
“This was all foretold long ago, and it’s sad to go back and read the old stories, because everybody — John Simms, Paul Bruun, Luna Leopold — said this was going to happen,” said Stanford, who covered the club’s early days as a Jackson Hole News and, later, News&Guide reporter.
“Migrating river channels are dynamic ecosystems,” Stanford said. “They move around and need a wide buffer, and clearly in this case the buffer was insufficient. We knew it in 2002.”
Hocker doesn’t want to see the Sporting Club paper over erosion-control work done without permission over several years.
“They should not get away with this, just because they did it and tried to ask for forgiveness instead of permission,” Hocker said. “Whether it was knowing or just bad judgment, they should remove the stuff.
“The question is, will the Forest Service and the county stand up, or knuckle under?” he said. “Nobody asked those folks to spend a lot of money in a temporary abandoned channel in a Wild and Scenic River. We all make mistakes.”
Really good investigative reporting . Thank you for this example of the important role of good journalism in service to the public. Curious to know who they contracted with to perform the work , not sure who would accept such a project without permits, engineering, ES, etc.
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