Wyofile by Angus M. Thuermer Jr.
BONDURANT — In a showdown pitting Wyoming values of property rights against the desire for a quiet, rural lifestyle, Sublette County commissioners came down on the side of property rights last week, approving a billionaire’s high-end resort and stunning his neighbors who said it would forever disrupt their iconic mountain valley.
By a one-vote margin, the county board approved a zone change for 56 acres to allow TD Ameritrade founder and bison rancher Joe Ricketts to build an exclusive retreat with 64 rooms among a main building and eight cabins. Ricketts, whose family owns the Chicago Cubs and who is reportedly worth $4.6 billion, told his neighbors in Bondurant that the resort would enable his grandchildren to keep his Jackson Fork Ranch bison operation running as a wide-open agricultural pursuit.
“I just put money into it every year,” he told about 70 people in the Sublette County Library — and a similar number online — last week. “If I give it to them [the grandchildren] they don’t have the money to put into it.”
Opponents see a case of wealth riding roughshod over the public will and the locally developed land use plan.
It was Ricketts’ second bite at the apple — the county rejected his plan for the resort in 2020 — but his attorney Morgan Fischer said the newly scaled-down project addressed previous worries. Aside from Ricketts, Fischer and commissioners Joel Bousman, Sam White and Tom Noble, none of those attending last week’s hearing spoke in favor of the development. The county’s planning and zoning board had recommended against the rezone twice, saying it didn’t meet requirements of the county’s land use plan.
As Fischer described the resort, it would invite urban residents to experience ranching and open space, spurring them toward an enlightened ethos.
“They will go back with a newfound appreciation for that,” Fischer said. “Ideally that will foster what Joe is trying to promote.
“He wants to take his conservation heart,” Fischer said, “and put it on display on his ranch.”
Where the deer and antelope play
Ricketts, 80, touted his conservation legacy in support of his guest ranch development. He gave big money to help preserve the nearby Noble Basin in an oil-and-gas buyout. He played a critical last-minute role in that $8.75 million conservation deal in 2012 that protected a vital wildlife link between parts of the Wyoming Range and critical wildlife habitat farther south.
“I was the person that started that,” Ricketts told the standing-room-only crowd at the Sublette County Library on Dec. 7. “I was the person that funded it all through Trout Unlimited and with the help of many, many other people that joined us.
“That cost me a few million dollars,” he said, a donation he hadn’t previously touted. “I’ve never said anything about it until today,” Ricketts told the commissioners.
Developing the 56 acres would continue that conservation effort, he said.
“The only way we’re going to preserve [the Jackson Fork Ranch] is [with] those tourist dollars,” Ricketts said. “I don’t know of another way that I can generate enough income to take care of it.”
Attorney Fischer suggested a Sword of Damocles hangs over the ranch. Without the financial support of a resort, the scenic spread of more than 1,000 acres along about 7 miles of the upper Hoback River could be subdivided into a maze of 36 ranchettes, each 35-acres, he said.
That a paradise would have to be developed to save it, that a billionaire conservationist had no other means to protect and preserve his own property, brought disbelief and a suggestion that Ricketts’ immense wealth is more than adequate to support the bison operation and keep the land open.
“He’s got money, I know he does,” said longtime Sublette County resident Tyler Wilson, who lamented the influx of city folk. “They’re going to be going up in the forest bothering the deer,” the Boulder denizen said.
Wyoming Game and Fish Department maps show the Sublette Mule Deer migration route crossing the ranch in several places. But Gov. Mark Gordon’s executive order protecting migration routes does not apply to private land, Commission Chairman Bousman told the audience.
Further, the two parcels targeted for development are located where they would have the least impact on wildlife, Fischer said. Plus, that targeted property is unsuitable for hay cultivation, Ricketts told the commissioners.
A Game and Fish Department letter recognized the development is planned on “crucial elk and moose winter year-long range” and is in the Wyoming Mule Deer and Pronghorn Migration Corridor protected by Gov. Gordon in 2020. The agency recommended that ranch operators continue to work with the agency to minimize disruption to those wildlife values and not to work construction between Nov. 15 and April 30.
Josh Coursey, Muley Fanatic Foundation founder, offered a different take than Ricketts on sustainability. “What is sustainable,” he told the commissioners, “is wide-open spaces.”
Ricketts and Fischer said the resort would have driver services to and from the Jackson Hole Airport. Visitors would stay at the ranch, not add significant traffic to the gravel county road up the upper Hoback, they said. Resort parking would be underground.
Nevertheless, area resident Tracy Tominc fretted. “When you bring in city folks driving their GPS up that road, that is the opposite of anything that anybody in this room, other than Mr. Ricketts and his money — and the people sitting next to him because of money — want,” he said. “There is no good reason jamming humans up the upper Hoback is a good idea.”
Speaker after speaker pointed north to Jackson Hole and said they didn’t want the pressures and types of development there to leak into their community only about 35 miles away. The zone change would open the floodgates, they said.
“All you have to do is … look at what happened to Jackson,” D.J. Kominsky told commissioners. “Just a little more, just a little more …”
The zone change upends land-use planning the community relies on, said Dan Bailey, an upper Hoback resident. “By opening that door, we begin the process of tearing down the comprehensive plan,” he said.
Lisi Krall told the board that Bondurant is one of the country’s last intact rural agricultural areas. “That historical character is disappearing,” she said. “One seemingly insignificant change in zoning laws” could lead to “that disaster to the north of us.”
Steve Robertson argued that Ricketts’ plan doesn’t mix with ranching. “An exclusive mountain resort community doesn’t neighbor well with ag,” he said.
Ricketts’ plan would help diversify Sublette County’s economy without ruining its character, Fischer assured commissioners and the audience. “There’s no ice cream store… no bike store that’s going to come,” he said.
No opinions, please
The board should rely on consultants and others — from traffic engineers to the Game and Fish Department — who analyzed the development, Fischer said.
“We have to rely on experts,” he told commissioners. “If we were to rely on opinions, I don’t think we would get anywhere. To discount Joe’s experts and rely solely on public opinion might be a bit misguided.”
It didn’t take long for commissioners to decide on the zone change, to the chagrin of Tominc and others. Tominc said later the board didn’t address the 10 findings required under regulations for a zone change.
Chairman Bousman, a fourth-generation Sublette rancher, supported Ricketts after outlining the challenges of running stock on the land. “Ranching in Sublette County … because of the cost of winters and economic situation, is not easy without some extra source of income,” he said. “It’s been that way forever.”
In its approval, the board OK’d a condition to adopt the Game and Fish recommendation to cease construction between Nov. 15 and April 30.
Bousman said change is inevitable. “We can’t stop that, short of building a wall around Sublette County,” he said, “a wall around Bondurant.”