Multi billionaire's highly controversial guest ranch approved, but contested in court
Private property rights are a major cornerstone to how Wyoming operates, but so is prioritizing a rural, quiet lifestyle – ultimately, the former won out in Sublette County.
Back in December, county commissioners approved a rezoning request for a multi-billionaire to develop an exclusive guest ranch in the southernmost part of the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem.
The Jackson Fork Ranch is located just outside Bondurant — a ranching community of 59 people.
Driving on the ‘Upper Hoback Road’ to get to the ranch, one passes log cabins, a state-designated elk feed ground, pastures filled with cows and endless public land that feeds into the Wyoming Range.
The Jackson Fork Ranch is owned by TD Ameritrade founder and multi-billionaire Joe Ricketts. The ranch is known for its ‘albino buffalo.’ Currently, it is a working, agriculture ranch covering over 1,000 acres, with the guest part being a log mansion, overlooking the sprawling land.
But with the recent rezoning, 56 acres of it will eventually include 64 rooms in a main resort and eight separate cabins. Ricketts said the idea is to create a space for big city folk to become acquainted with the rural way of life.
At the Sublette County commissioners meeting last month, Ricketts said that opening the exclusive resort is critical to maintaining the agriculture side of the ranch.
“And the only way we’re going to preserve it is with tourist dollars,” he said. “I don’t know of another way that I can generate enough income to take care of it.”
Rickett’s request initially came in 2020, but it was voted down by both the Planning and Zoning (P&Z) board and the County Commissioners. Then in 2021, P&Z voted it down again, saying it does not meet the 10 requirements of Sublette County’s land use plan. That includes things like the use and zoning of nearby property, the effect on property values, public gain versus owner’s hardship and the community need.
“The philosophy and goal of Planning and Zoning is to create cohesiveness,” Board member Chris Lacinak said. “So, you know, are you keeping ag and residential together? Are you keeping commercial properties together?”
Lacinak said the Jackson Fork Ranch proposal does not do this – he voted down the request.
Ultimately, the county commissioners have the final say, and approved the rezoning request 3-2 in December.
This was despite an overwhelming lack of support from residents. Nearly 200 people joined the meeting online and in-person. Those who spoke out all opposed the rezoning.
“But when you bring in city folks driving their GPS up that road,” resident Tracy Tominc said. “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.”
According to the proposal’s independent traffic study, there will not be a significant amount of additional traffic on the gravel county road. However, the development will be on ‘crucial elk and moose winter year-long range’, as well as the Wyoming Mule Deer and Pronghorn Migration Corridor. The Game and Fish Department recommended construction on the project cease between Nov. 15 and April 30.
Commissioner Doug Vickery said there are three reasons he did not support the rezoning – the lack of public support, that the planning and zoning board voted it down twice and that the proposal did not meet the necessary requirements to change zoning.
“Now I say as a whole, obviously the Bondurant folks were more upset than the rest,” Vickery said. “But I had responses from every corner of Sublette county that said, ’Please don't pass it.’”
While the three County Commissioners who voted in favor of the rezoning did not respond to multiple interview requests for this story, they did speak about it at a recent public hearing.
Chairman Joel Bousman said growth and change is inevitable in Sublette County.
“It's not within the parameters of our existing regulations to have the attitude that, ‘I moved into this area, I built my house, I don't want anybody else coming in,’” Bousman said.
As of January 6, seven residents in the Hoback Basin are not calling it quits. They filed a civil petition with the 9th District Court, requesting the judge to “vacate” – or reverse – the commissioner’s ruling. The residents claim that the rezoning application approval is ‘inconsistent with’ the county’s land-use plan.
If the approval were to be reversed, Jackson Fork Ranch would have to wait a minimum of one year before re-submitting their proposal to Planning and Zoning.
Jackson Fork Ranch declined comment for this story after multiple requests.
Disclaimer: Reporter Caitlin Tan’s mom, Maike Tan, serves on Sublette County’s Planning and Zoning Board.