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Tough calls ahead for zoning

Commission ponders mixed results from input sessions

After hearing the results of an outreach effort on the question of zoning, the county commissioners will take some time to consider what comes next.

Should the county stop right here and cease to pursue the thought of zoning?

Should it go ahead full speed, starting with updates to its land use plan and then moving on to the creation of a zoning document?

Or should it delay the ultimate decision about zoning, for now focusing on the land use plan updates that are needed either way?

This was the decision – “Whether we do or we don’t, or we partly do or partly don’t,” as summarized by Commissioner Fred Devish – that commissioners were left with after hearing a report from consultant Jayna Watson that summarized her findings from input meetings held across the county in January.

“It was a mix of support,” she said.

Why Zoning?

The commission has been exploring the potential to introduce zoning to Crook County as a method of growth management.

The effort was launched in the light of an increase in rural subdivision activity over recent years, which has led to questions about how growth is going to impact the county.

For example, Watson wrote in her report, “The conversion from a ranch operation to any form of development, whether it be a commercial or residential project, is currently unregulated. The landowner needs no type of land use approval to pursue it and, if no subdivision of property is proposed, the owner may proceed directly to construction.”

Crook County is surrounded by states with heavy land use regulations, she wrote, which makes it an attractive destination for non-local interests to capitalize on land use freedoms without accountability for the impacts of development.

“The open nature of Wyoming is both its asset and something to potentially be concerned about in the future,” she told the commissioners.

Findings

The meetings, said Watson, were intended to, “Understand what the citizens felt, thought.”

Overall, she described, “a divided audience as to whether zoning was the tool needed.”

The topic that received the most discussion at the meetings was whether zoning is necessary, with citizens expressing thoughts on both sides of the issue.

The central question was whether landowners should have the right to use their property without limits, which saw mixed responses in the various towns.

However, the reasons for those opinions were consistent, Watson said. Those who do not support zoning generally feel an individual’s land rights should not be restricted to accomplish other public purposes, such as achieving land use compatibility with the surrounding area.

Those who do support zoning are concerned about lack of accountability to adjoining landowners or the public in general and because, Watson said, “Without it, literally anything can happen.”

A majority of people (except at the Sundance meeting) want to know about, and be involved in, what happens on adjacent land. However, those who do not support zoning are concerned about the impact on their freedoms.

Unfortunately, said Watson, the two are “clearly incompatible”. Crook County cannot have both.

Fee Structure

Most participants agreed that the county should take a look at its fee structure, said Watson, and felt that the fees and fines should address the impact of new development on county infrastructure and services.

“People want to see accountability in development,” she said.

For example, if a subdivision is developed at the end of a three-mile stretch of unmaintained road covered in potholes, who is responsible for bringing that road up to a usable standard?

Enough Input?

Mary Yemington of the Crook County Land Use and Planning Commission expressed surprise at the meeting as to how few people came to the meetings. Across the four meetings, a total of 92 attendees signed in.

Does this mean the county needs more input before making a decision? And, if so, how should it be gathered?

The idea of surveys was floated, but Commissioner Kelly Dennis pointed out that they are rarely effective.

Commissioner Bob Latham commented that the reason for choosing meetings as the input gathering method was to allow time for the situation to be properly explained.

Devish, however, felt that people would have attended if they had wanted to, no matter what the weather had been doing.

“Cold or no cold, this is Wyoming,” he said, adding that he’s not sure what would be accomplished from hosting more meetings.

Watson agreed. Generally, she said, more meetings are only useful if you are still seeing additional information and concerns coming through.

Once you have a “core group of opinions”, further input will be unlikely to add more and it’s time to begin finessing, she said. In this case, she believes those opinions have been expressed.

Road Ahead

No matter the commission’s decision on zoning, the Crook County Comprehensive Land Use Plan needs to be updated at this time.

This plan expresses the county’s hopes and goals for future growth, but is not enforceable without a zoning ordinance and map.

“It has no teeth,” said Devish, who felt the county should at least move ahead with that portion.

Planning Director Tim Lyons commented that, throughout the rewriting process, there will be additional opportunity for public comment.

No decisions about zoning were made during the meeting, though Devish made sure to point out that nothing will be done without the public’s knowledge.

“We’re trying to be as transparent as possible – there’s nothing I’m hiding under my pillow,” he said.

As to whether zoning was the correct path, the three commissioners were each undecided.

“It’s a tough call, but we are growing,” said Devish.

Dennis said he would support an update of the county’s land use plan, but the first thing he wants to see happen is a “major” fee schedule change. Latham agreed, stating that they are currently too cheap and it’s too easy for people to just barge through them and continue with their plans.

Watson pointed out that zoning could be done in “baby steps”, with just a few zone types on the map with a wide range of uses. This would be simple and straightforward and the commission could then “fine tune and tweak” over time.

Ernie Reinhold urged the commission to make a decision in the near future, noting that things are changing quickly in the county and, “The more we put it off, the less effect it will have.”