State lawmakers are embracing a bill, specifically targeting Teton County, that critics say will carve up rural lands into subdivisions.
Legislators who favor the bill say it clears the way for ranching families to grant homesites to their kids, but county officials worry that it infringes on local control and could fuel real estate speculation.
On Thursday, a Senate committee voted 4-0 to send House Bill 196 to the full Senate for a vote.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Shelly Duncan, R-Goshen, said the bill prevents “rogue, over-reaching” counties (like Teton) from abusing a state statute that exempts family homesites from subdivision restrictions.
“There were some overzealous local regulators circumventing our statutes,” Duncan told the committee.
The intent of the state’s family homesite exemption is to allow ranchers to subdivide a plot so their kids can build a home and stay on the ranch. In Teton County, many can’t access the exemption.
Rural county zoning requires individual parcels to be at least 35 acres, so while Teton County will allow a family subdivision under the state exemption, nothing can be built on the subdivided parcel because the county won’t grant a building permit if the parcel is smaller than that.
Teton County cracked down on the exemption in 2007 after a rush of subdivisions. Between 2004 and 2007, the county saw 140 new parcels created using the tool. Many were subdivided and given to spouses, county records show. Some parcels appear to have been divided as many as 10 times. The county does not know who at least 26 subdivisions were given to, and a few are listed as gifts to “self.”
The county essentially halted the subdivision rush by requiring a minimum lot size and withholding building permits. House Bill 196 would require Teton County to issue those permits.
Local attorney Amberley Baker pushed for the bill’s introduction.
“Without it, local government bodies can continue to subvert and render meaningless the exemption,” Baker told lawmakers. “What the bill does is ensure zoning regulations cannot be used to make it totally unavailable.”
Sen. Charles Scott, R-Natrona, asked if the bill would “put a stop to the particular bureaucracy that’s trying to oppress” people in Teton County. Duncan said yes.
Duncan also told the committee that parcels utilizing the family subdivision exemption would be held to a minimum size of 5 acres, but that’s inaccurate. Under the law, landowners can use the exemption to carve out parcels of any desired size, but parcels divided under the exemption that are less than 5 acres can’t be subdivided using the exemption again.
Rep. Andy Schwartz, D-Teton, said Teton County’s regulations were adopted because in the past the family exemption has been abused for real estate speculation. He said a lot next to his home was created, “in theory,” for the landowner’s daughter, then sold a year and a day later, as soon as it was allowed under the law.
“It became very clear, very quickly that this was being used for speculative purposes,” Schwartz said.
Before the bill came to the Senate, representatives in the House incorporated an amendment from Schwartz. Now, the bill requires families to hold land for at least 10 years (currently it’s five) before using the family exemption. It also requires the family member receiving the subdivided parcel to hold it for five years (currently one) before selling it outside the family.
“This seemed to strengthen the idea that this was particularly for these ag families, and it just strengthened our intention of the bill,” Duncan said.
Sen. Mike Gierau, D-Teton, suggested further fixes to better serve the bill’s purpose for ranching families, like including a minimum lot size requirement for the subdivided parcels, or capping the total number of lots that could be created under the exemption.
The Jackson Hole Hereford Ranch’s Nikki Gill testified in favor of the bill, saying it would allow her and her siblings to continue her family’s ranching legacy.
“It is onerous and increasingly impossible due to the leaded hand of county government regulations unfairly weighing the scale,” Gill said. “I’m raised on local government close to the people. But in this instance, government is a barrier to my freedom to build on my land.”
The bill requires three approvals before the full Senate and the governor’s signature to become law.