Sublette County Rejects Resort On Agricultural Land

Jul 14, 2020

After a heated and lengthy meeting last Tuesday, the Sublette County Board of Commissioners voted 4-1 against the construction of a luxury resort in the small ranching community of Bondurant. The resort would have required a change in local zoning rules, with 43 acres of agricultural land reclassified as recreational.

The application for the resort, first signed in February, came from Ameritrade founder and billionaire Joe Ricketts. It stated that a tourist destination could create employment opportunities and provide recreational activities on adjacent public lands.

But that proposal was met with criticism. In 65 letters to the Sublette County Commissioners' office, Bondurant residents argued that the resort would harm natural resources and wildlife, strain local infrastructure, and erode traditional industries like agriculture.

On Tuesday's meeting, Ricketts' representative Morgan Fischer tried to ease concerns. As he presented to the community for over 2 hours, Fischer brought up Ricketts' track record with conservation, including a sizable donation to the Trust for Public Land in 2013. He also introduced several economic and environmental analysts who spoke in the project's favor.

Throughout, Fischer emphasized his willingness to amend the proposal to fit the community's needs, including limiting light pollution and funding additional studies to assess impacts to the area. "My application is not a static one, it's a fluid one," he said.

It proved difficult, though, to find common ground with residents. After Fischer's presentation, several people voiced concerns.

The resort would have included 45 rooms and 23 units of employee housing.
Credit Sublette County

A primary worry was the potential impact on wildlife. The Wyoming Game and Fish Department has called the resort's location a crucial habitat for moose and elk populations. In the summer, it is part of a migration path for mule deer on their way north.

One community member questioned a Ricketts-funded study that suggested deer would adjust their migratory movements around the resort. "Did you have a meeting with the deer?" the resident deadpanned.

Melissa Harrison, Bondurant resident and former director of the Jackson Hole Wildlife Foundation, added that Ricketts' plan could drive up the cost of living and attract seasonal employees and tourists who would not invest in the local economy.

Harrison also argued that the change in zoning regulations would set a precedent for the disappearance of local agriculture. With increased spot-zoning and private developers in Bondurant, she concluded, "We will become known as Little Jackson Hole."

Not everyone opposed the project, however.

Andrew Zook is the owner of a bike shop in the nearby town of Pinedale. With the decline of oil and gas, he said projects like Ricketts' could help diversify the economy. "If we don't put recreation and business development first," Zook said, "jobs are going to go away, and people are going to go away."

In 2007, 93 percent of Sublette's economy came from minerals, and the county has long been the largest natural gas producer in the state. But in the last decade, shale gas has fallen nearly 40 percent in Wyoming, with local companies like Jonah Energy planning to slow production.

In a letter supporting the resort, resident Blake Greenhalgh echoed the desire for a diverse economy. "I would like my children to have more opportunities to stay in the community when they grow up," he wrote.

Melissa Harrison agreed that diversification was important but maintained that Ricketts' resort was not the answer Sublette County was looking for.

A few days after the meeting, she reflected on her own forays through woods protected by the Forest Service. It might be hunting season or calving season, so she said awareness was key during her walks. "We need to be careful," Harrison said. "We need to tread lightly or we will lose this resource."

The Board's decision is final, for now. According to the county's zoning regulations, no application for the same or similar development may be made for at least a year.