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Wyoming Region Aims to Repel New Homes on the Range

May 04, 2003|Mead Gruver | Associated Press Writer

SARATOGA, Wyo. — For harried urban dwellers who might dream of building a home on the range amid the serene wide valleys and snowcapped peaks of south-central Wyoming, local authorities have some discouraging words: "Ride on, stranger."

As more outsiders are drawn to the area, Carbon County has enacted a square-mile minimum for lots on land zoned as open range. The goal is to prevent sprawl and avoid unrealistic expectations among newcomers.

But the new rule has many natives riled up -- especially cattle ranchers who consider the right to subdivide and sell their land as sacred.

Open range -- where cattle can roam and graze at will -- is the default zoning for Carbon County, and it covers the vast majority of the county. New housing unrelated to agriculture is prohibited on open range.

But not everyone bothers to research such details when they buy relatively small plots of open range, often sight-unseen, and often based on an ad on the Internet.

After a few years of using their own little piece of the West as a private camping area, some are unpleasantly surprised when they look into building a cabin and discover that it's illegal, according to county Planning Director Jay Grabow.

"People got what they paid for. They got a 40-acre piece of open-range land," Grabow said. "But that open-range zone didn't have any residential development rights to it."

Even though the square-mile limit was enacted at the beginning of the year, numerous small plots of open-range land continue to be advertised on eBay, with descriptions of antelope and mountain views. Grabow said a 25% repossession rate on existing lots keeps such properties available.

Buying a square mile of land is hardly a casual transaction. A square mile is 640 acres, or three-quarters the size of Central Park in New York. Presumably anyone who would shell out that kind of money -- perhaps more than $500,000 -- knows what he or she is getting into.

But ranchers are angry. Unless a buyer can be found in a neighbor or someone willing to buy 640 acres just to go camping, they have suddenly found themselves without their best insurance against lean times.

Before this year, ranchers were able to divide their land into lots of, say, 40, 80 or 160 acres, build roads along the property lines -- irrespective of the terrain -- and sell the land without worrying about the county's approval. The regulatory details were left to any buyer who wanted to build.

Ranchers can still sell land by going through the Planning Commission and getting a zoning change, such as to residential or recreational. But unless the land is accessible to firetrucks, ambulances and school buses; and unless the development is not going to clutter the view or otherwise harm the value of neighboring ranch land, a zoning change is unlikely to be granted.

Not to mention that your typical rancher would rather wrestle with a bull calf than engage in bureaucratic wrangling.

"While our population has decreased over the past 10 years, I have no idea why we even need zoning," said G. G. Kortes, a rancher and president of the Carbon County Farm Bureau. "Property rights need to be protected. And the way this is going, we will have no property rights. The county will be dictating to us everything we can do with every stitch of our property."

Doug Caffey, owner of Coyote Springs Land Co., has helped sell tens of thousands of acres of fantastically remote sagebrush country in northwest Carbon County. The land is on the eastern edge of the Great Divide Basin, where precipitation -- about as much as in Phoenix, except mostly snow -- flows neither to the Atlantic nor Pacific.

Caffey calls the rule a land grab.

"It's the only county in the United States of America where they say there is no use of land less than 640 acres in size," he said. "Are we saying, then, have we come to the point in America where we don't want you to build a home out in the country, out on the prairie, because we don't think it's good for you and the kids?

"Why don't I have my constitutional right to do that?"

Caffey, of Costa Mesa, Calif., has made a living shepherding recreational land deals in Wyoming, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Nevada and Oregon. He said he has never seen anywhere as "confused, as uncreative and as involved in as massive a taking" of land rights as Carbon County.

Caffey said people who buy land from him have no illusions about how their property can be used, and they tell him that they are happy with their investments. He predicted that the new zoning rule will bring a lawsuit.

Carbon County may not be booming, but like most of the West, it is changing rapidly. Young people are moving out; school enrollment is dropping, and retirees -- some with a little money, some with a lot -- are moving in, lured by no state income tax and a plethora of outdoorsy things to do.

The northern part of the county is home to two huge reservoirs linked by a world-famous trout stream, the North Platte River's Miracle Mile. Southern Carbon County is physically separated from Colorado by rugged mountains and thick forests crisscrossed by trails for hiking, skiing and snowmobiling.

"We have our share of the really truly wealthy people that come here," said county Planning Commissioner Sonja Collamer, a Saratoga resident. "The people that come to my church that have come in, they are retirees who are middle-of-the-road. They want access to recreation and such that still isn't Vail or Jackson Hole.

"The culture of the town hasn't changed tremendously. But that's the direction where we're going."

She said she understands the concerns of property rights advocates.

"The question is whether we want to do what is in our land-use plan, which is preserve open space and encourage responsible development."

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