Lawmakers killed a bill Tuesday aimed at allowing residential development on the state’s 3.4 million acres.
Those opposed to the draft bill were largely focused on a clause that cut out requirements to comply with local planning and zoning rules. It died with a 7-7 tie.
As executive director of the Wyoming County Commissioners Association, Jerimiah Rieman said he was supportive of allowing residential use of state lands to address housing shortages. But he opposed draft language that he thought could eliminate local control over such developments.
“That creates a great deal of angst amongst local governments who are your eyes and ears on the ground relative to how development, public health, public safety should exist in the state,” Rieman told the Joint Revenue Committee.
Parts of the bill were more popular that tried to add to the state’s housing supply while maximizing return for Wyoming public schools, which receive money from state land leases. The vast majority of those leases currently go to ranchers and mineral extractors.
Local representatives on the committee, Reps. Jim Roscoe, a Teton County independent, and Mike Yin, a Jackson Democrat, vocally opposed the draft legislation but appeared open to the concept of using state land for housing.
Yin told the committee after the vote that there were a lot of things he liked about the bill but “gutting” local oversight was “the big killer for me.” Roscoe said he’d support residential housing as a state land use “if we get it right.”
Marguerite Herman, with Advocates for School Trust Land, liked how the bill looked at new opportunities to fund schools.
Chairman Steve Harshman, a Natrona County Republican who helped author the bill, largely dismissed worries over county commissioners not having zoning control.
“It’s not whether county commissioners got all the power, or the state or anybody else.” he said. “These trust lands have a job to do.”
Likewise, Rep. Cale Case, a Fremont County Republican, said the state lands are legally mandated to raise money for schools.
“I think we can really trust the Board of Land Commissioners to work with local officials and to try to do the right thing,” Case said.
But trust between local and state officials is already strained in Teton County, where county commissioners and developers continue to tangle over state land permits near Teton Village.
Jim Magagna, the executive vice president of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association and former director of the Office of State Lands and Investments, pointed to the Teton County dispute as an example of what could go wrong if the state didn’t issue the right lease.
“In our view, the Office of State Lands and Board of Land Commissioners avoided using the leasing statute and used the temporary use permit,” he told lawmakers, “in order to avoid compliance with local planning and zoning.”
Local officials are warning that skirting those regulations is creating public health and safety concerns. Last month, water quality watch dogs noticed that the company building 11 raised luxury camping sites on state land, under the temporary use permit, changed its septic system from what it had originally applied for, possibly infringing on wetlands.
Basecamp Hospitality LLC has said the state recommended it pursue the septic system.
Since the county and state disagree on where the wetlands are, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has stepped in to investigate the possible infringement onto wetlands where Basecamp put a septic system for gray water. The investigation is ongoing.
County commissioners have told both Basecamp and Wilson Investments, a company building storage units on state land, that they need to seek permits that protect the wetlands and check for electrical and structural safety.
In a meeting with Basecamp, the county’s chief electrical inspector, Butch Gosselin, said, “It appears that the electrical installation is being performed by a non-licensed and apparently inexperienced installer,” according to public notes from the meeting.
So far only Basecamp has responded to the county, but said it needed to confer with the state before seeking all four permits county commissioners are asking for. All communications from the county can be found on the Planning Department’s website and are linked to the online version of this article.
Some Teton County residents say they want the county to act more quickly in stopping construction or getting the leases revoked, but the legal process is slow, said Deputy County Attorney Keith Gingery.
Commissioners discussed Monday in a voucher meeting a plan for county staff to issue both companies a notice to abate next week. The notice is the first of many steps in what is likely to be a monthslong legal process that could include a hearing in front of county commissioners and a later hearing in front of a Circuit Court judge.
The court could issue a fine of $750 a day and order companies to comply with the county. County commissioners also could ask the Office of State Lands and Investments to revoke the permits for failure to comply with local rules.
Teton County District Court Judge Melissa Owens dismissed commissioners’ first try to appeal the state land commissioners’ issuance of the permits in October. Owens said the county did not have standing without ruling on the merits of the county’s argument about whether the type of permit was appropriate.
If neither company complied with the county in due time and a circuit court sided with commissioners, it’s hard to say what the punishment would be, Gingery said, because case law is scant. There have been times “at the early stage” when the county has made people tear down structures found to be noncompliant, Gingery said, and in the early 2000s the county went through a similar process with a homeowner who had added too much square footage to his home and did so without permits.
“We took this to the Supreme Court three times,” Gingery said. “What was so frustrating about that case was the judge simply fined him.”