Bondurant citizens’ legal case against Sublette County commissioners and billionaire Joe Ricketts’ Jackson Fork Ranch will no longer be heard in Teton County.
Instead, Ninth District Court Judge Melissa Owens, who presides over the Teton County court, assigned the case to Judge Steven K. Sharpe of the First Judicial District in Laramie County. Owens’ judicial assistant said her boss had a “conflict of interest.”
A Sublette County judge had already reassigned the civil complaint from his courtroom to Owens’.
The legal battle is the latest installment in a yearslong fight over the future of the agricultural, northern corner of Sublette County. On one side is Ricketts, who founded TD Ameritrade and once made an 11th hour donation to clinch an $8.75 million buyout of 58,000 acres of natural gas leases to prevent drilling in the Hoback River basin. On the other: Bondurant dwellers who feel Ricketts’ conservation ethic has gone astray and don’t want to see their town undergo resort-driven development like Jackson Hole.
Dan Bailey and six other Bondurant residents asked the court in January to review and “vacate” the Sublette County Board of County Commissioners’ 3-2 decision to approve a rezone that paves the way for a new 15- to 20-unit resort along Upper Hoback River Road.
While Owens declined to elaborate on the nature of her conflict, attorneys representing the petitioners and respondents in the case said they’d heard from the court that Owens had identified a “familial connection” between herself and one of the petitioners.
Both Kevin Gregory, an attorney representing Dan Bailey and the other Bondurant residents, and Matthew Kim-Miller, an attorney representing Sublette County, said that neither the petitioners nor respondents asked for the case to be moved to another court. Instead, they said, Owens made the decision.
Matthew Turner, an attorney representing the Jackson Fork Ranch, could not be reached by press time Friday.
“No party had any concern, no party raised the issues,” Gregory told the Jackson Hole Daily. “But these judges always try to maintain the utmost fairness and impartiality and to make sure that the appearance of fairness and impartiality is maintained.”
Attorney Kim-Miller added: “She thought it would be best to have everything be fair and impartial.”
Oral arguments in the pending legal battle were originally slated to be heard Aug. 25 in Owens’ Jackson courtroom. But Owens’ decision to assign the case elsewhere has put that hearing on hold. As of press time Sunday, Gregory and Kim-Miller both said they had not heard when the hearing would be scheduled in Laramie County. They also didn’t know whether the hearing would be held in person or virtually, or if there would be an option for the public to listen in virtually.
At issue is the Sublette County commissioners’ December 2021 vote to rezone 56 of the roughly 1,300 acres Ricketts owns in Bondurant for the resort. In addition to founding TD Ameritrade, Ricketts owns the Chicago Cubs.
The seven petitioners — Dan Bailey, Delores Kominsky, Mary Krall, Richard Pearson, Steve Robertson, Dennis Seipp and Marti Seipp — fought Ricketts’ plans, which were reviewed by Sublette County commissioners twice. They were joined by scores of other Hoback Basin residents in opposition.
Sublette County elected officials, however, voted 3-2 to approve Ricketts’ plans when they were last heard in December 2021.
Gregory and attorney James Lubing are representing Bailey and the other petitioners. In their appeal for review of the Sublette County commissioners’ decision, they argued the commissioners who voted for the rezone failed to explain how the project fit the Sublette County Comprehensive Plan’s 10 goals.
The petitioners also asked for a review of the decision under the Wyoming Administrative Procedures Act, according to the Sublette Examiner.
But the attorneys representing Sublette County and Ricketts said the 3-2 vote was a “legislative act” and complied with “the requirements of the commissioners’ procedures.” Kim-Miller and Paula Fleck of Holland & Hart, representing Sublette County, said the three commissioners’ votes complied with the county’s comprehensive plan and argued that the citizens challenging the decision had not shown how they had standing to do so.
Matthew Turner and John Graham of Geittmann Larson Swift LLP, representing Ricketts’ Jackson Fork Ranch, said the county is not required to make “findings” about how a rezone complies with the comprehensive plan’s goals.
Law offices representing the petitioners and respondents are all Jackson-based. Sublette County Attorney Mike Crosson recused his office from representing the Sublette County commissioners, describing votes from the Sublette County Planning and Zoning Board and elected Sublette County commissioners as “inconsistent,” according to the Examiner. The Planning and Zoning Board voted 3-2 to recommend the county commission deny Ricketts’ proposed rezone.
Owens’ decision to assign the case elsewhere comes after petitioners and respondents had all filed legal briefs.
The Jackson judge had asked the citizens fighting the Sublette commissioners’ votes to explain why they had standing to do so and asked attorneys for both sides to show in oral arguments where the commissioners considered the 10 factors outlined in the Sublette County Comprehensive Plan — or failed to.
How Judge Sharpe will structure the hearing in Laramie County remains to be seen.
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