From the pages of
Sublette Examiner
Volume 3, Number 4 - April 24, 2003
brought to you online by Pinedale Online

PDR issue isn't over yet

by Cat Urbigkit

"Perhaps it's over, perhaps it's not," said Sublette County Commission Chairman Gordon Johnston at the conclusion of a two-hour discussion about using county tax revenues to fund a pilot purchase of development rights program.

Last Thursday afternoon's PDR program discussion before the Sublette County Commission drew a large crowd of Sublette County citizens into the county annex in Marbleton.

The purpose of the meeting was to hear the recommendations of the county PDR Working Group (Bernie Holz, Tom Davenport and Nancy Espenscheid), which included a plug to have the county initiate a $1 million pilot PDR program with tax revenues.

That generated a great deal of controversy, with many people speaking in opposition to using tax money for the program, although some supporters of the idea spoke as well.

Commission Chairman Gordon Johnston said with the Wyoming Attorney General's opinion being that the county cannot legally give money to a land trust, "If that is truly the case, then what we're doing here is a waste of time."

PDR Working Group member Tom Davenport said the Attorney General's letter answered a different question than what the PDR group had proposed. He said even if the Attorney General's letter had said that was allowable, the group wouldn't have recommended that sort of program.

Davenport said the group is proposing that the county purchase the development rights from the landowner and the county would then own the development rights. He said the working group and the county attorney could figure out whether the development rights get transferred or whether the county would continue to hold the rights.

Johnston said, "Personally, I'm not even going to consider this one way or another until we get another letter from the Attorney General," with answers to whether the specific program being proposed is legal.

Pinedale's Bob Harrower presented petitions to the commission, with 660 signatures opposed to the county funding a PDR program, and 428 signatures from people who would like the PDR program to go to a public vote. Harrower urged the commission to make its decision that day, instead of dragging it out.

Johnston said he's not going to vote until he's received a determination whether the program would be legal.

Sublette County Clerk Mary Lankford said there is no way the county can conduct a binding election unless it is tied to a money issue such as bonding or sales tax, but added that there is nothing that restricts the county from conducting a public opinion poll (although such a poll would be non-binding).

Jane Wardell of the Big Piney area spoke as a member of a ranching family, stating, "I do not want to have somebody else save my ranch. ... Have we allowed a Trojan horse to come in among us and divide us? ... You cannot save agriculture in this county by selling development rights. ... For God's sake, don't listen to what you're being sold."

Dick Noble of Cora took a different view. He said "billionaire ranches" now surround his ranch and while he wants to keep his place, "I can't do it without something like this." Noble said he'd submit his ranch as a pilot project.

Jim Bousman of Boulder and Jim Greenwood of Halfway spoke in opposition to the program. Bousman said he supports the free market and continues to have faith in himself in providing for the future of agriculture in the county, while Greenwood said if for no other reason than pride, he wouldn't participate in the program.

Gary Espenscheid of Big Piney said the county could look like Park City, Star Valley or Jackson Hole if the county doesn't take some action and warned, "Don't assume we're not targeted for development."

Daniel's Doug Vickrey spoke next, stating, "PDRs probably have their place, but probably not with public money. ... The Sublette County agricultural community doesn't want it ... so who the hell wants it?"

Sublette County Attorney Van Graham said while the commission does have the authority to acquire land rights, the state attorney general was asked if the county could help a land trust acquire rights, which he said was "exactly the proper question" despite some criticism.

Graham pointed out that what the PDR group had proposed is for a land trust to hold the conservation easement, not the county.

Johnston said he has "a real serious question about whether the county should hold those development rights."

Commissioner Betty Fear said the county commission has let the PDR group take a great deal of heat and criticism when it's the commission who appointed the group and asked it to look into the PDR issue.

"Maybe we're not ready for PDRs at this point," Fear said, but the heat needs to come off the PDR working group. Fear said she's concerned that the county still doesn't know what the legality of a PDR program is yet.

PDR Working Group member Nancy Espenscheid said the county has two options: act now or do nothing. She warned if nothing is done, the county will be chopped into 35-acre parcels and new people will move in and impose excessive regulation for private property in the future, which she said, "This is something I fear almost as much as anything."

Others spoke in support of program to save agricultural land as well, including John Andrikopoulos, Tucker Smith and John Chrisman.

Commissioner Bill Cramer summed up his view: "At this point ... I cannot support PDRs - at this point." He said unfortunately it now appears that lots of people have chosen sides and closed their minds on the issue. Cramer said he would have to be able to see the public benefits in dollars and cents to gain his support.

Johnston thanked all for attending and participating in the process, as well as the working group members for their efforts.

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