Wyoming senators voted unanimously Friday to approve a bill designed to make it easier for families to subdivide ranches. All that’s needed now for the bill to become law is Gov. Mark Gordon’s signature.
Proponents say the bill clears the way for the next generation of ranchers to continue living on the family farm, but some local officials fear it could lead to unregulated sprawl and real estate speculation in Teton County.
The family homesite exemption is a state law that allows large landowners to subdivide a plot so their children 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.
The legislation, House Bill 196, requires Teton County to issue those building permits.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Shelly Duncan, R-Goshen, told a Senate committee that House Bill 196 prevents “rogue, over-reaching” counties 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 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.”
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.”
But Teton County officials contend that the legislation threatens local control over planning and zoning and allows unregulated sprawl.
“That would certainly increase the amount of houses in the far-flung parts of the county,” Teton County Commissioner Mark Newcomb said, which in turn would impact county infrastructure like roads, waste management and water quality.
Another zoning bill concerning county commissioners like Newcomb is Senate File 49, which is expected to see a final vote Monday in the Wyoming House of Representatives. That bill would strip county zoning authority over private schools in order to pave the way for the Jackson Hole Classical Academy to build a new campus in South Park.
As for the family exemption bill, Rep. Andy Schwartz, D-Teton, amended the bill to require families to hold land for 10 years (currently it’s five) before accessing the family. It also requires the family member receiving the subdivided parcel to hold it for five years (currently one) before selling it. The idea is the longer holding periods will reduce abuse.
Schwartz 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.