Teton County promotes itself as the “Last of the Old West” but yet so many are losing sight of what that actually means. The county says that it’s for conservation of open space via agriculture and recognizes that it’s important to protect the historic western character and supporting wildlife movement corridors, but with all of its continued regulatory pressures placed on landowners by our county government (raising fees, taxes, adding rules and regulations on top of other rules and regulations), along with the increased cost of land they have decimated open space in this community. And to what determinant?
As an owner of formerly designated agricultural land, I put forth to you that the county has demonstrated an abject failure in this regard. How many ranchers have been pressured by increased regulation to give up the ranching tradition, in many instances ranching that was carried on for generations?
How much open space, which was formerly agricultural lands, has been carved up in order to be developed? Take a moment to look at the old aerial photographs going back to 1945 on our county’s GIS system and you can see the loss of open space.
The “Illustration of our Vision” in the introductory portion of our Comprehensive Plan states “Identifies Preservation Subareas to ensure the protection of wildlife habitat, scenic vistas, agriculture and rural character.” [Comp. Plan, Plan Highlights, P. 21].
Perhaps it is telling that agriculture and rural character are listed last in the five illustrations of the community’s vision. Principles of the Comprehensive Plan state “Agriculture, conservation easements and other methods to protect open space from development while providing active stewardship of the land should continue to be encouraged.” [Comp. Plan, Principle 1.4 Protect and Steward Open Space]
The policies recognize that the agricultural community has provided much of the stewardship of the natural and scenic resource valued by the community. Conservation of open space via agriculture is recognized as protecting the historic western character and supporting wildlife movement corridors.
“Regulations that are generally applicable to development may functionally or procedurally impede the continuation of agricultural operations” [Comp Plan, Policy 1.4.b Conserve Agricultural lands and agriculture].
The county is supposed to evaluate the impacts of its regulations on active agricultural operations that conserve open space and continue to provide exemptions to requirements that preclude continued agricultural stewardship of large tracts of open space and the county will also explore other incentives to support and encourage continued agricultural conservation of open space. [Comp Plan, Policy 1.4b.]
My wife and I purchased 128 acres of mostly vacant property adjacent to Fish Creek in 1997. Our property contained our home, the old Sinclair building and over 100 acres of pasture.
In addition to our event space where we hosted events for guests all over the world, utilizing local vendors to help drive the economy, we grazed horses for local outfitters and equestrians; in exchange received agricultural tax designation on the pasture land we kept as open space leading up to the Wilson Faces.
While we enjoyed having horses on our property and benefited from tax relief on the pasture, we also enjoyed helping local outfitters keep their tradition and business alive. Subsequently, the county and the state imposed stricter regulations on agricultural designated lands and something had to be harvested and sold in order to keep the agricultural designation. The result: No more pasture rental for local outfitters. In addition, the county determined that buck and rail fences were no longer acceptable since they were an impediment to wild game. Surely these “experts” never came to our property to see deer, elk and moose move freely over and through our property and its newly unacceptable buck and rail fencing, some of which had been in place for generations.
With the change in the rules for agricultural designation, renting pasture to outfitters no longer qualified and our tax bill increased 87-fold in one year.
The result? Our family has sold all of our holdings in Teton County and the wonderful open space enjoyed previously by wildlife and livestock alike is now slated for development.
This used to be the “Last of the Old West” and a fine place to have fun, enjoy the open spaces, wildlife and historic outdoor culture. The county has seemingly worked quite hard to ruin what was once a good place to enjoy. How long will our community character be preserved without additional relief for the owners of open space? Some, my family included, argue it’s already too late.