From the pages of
Sublette Examiner
Volume 4, Number 22 - August 26, 2004
brought to you online by Pinedale Online

Commission okays $416K for PDR

by Cat Urbigkit

After about a 15-minute executive session with the county's purchase of development rights coordinator Carla Sullivan and County Attorney Van Graham, the Sublette County Commission came back into open session Friday to consider proposals for the first round of a pilot PDR program.

Sullivan said that the citizen review committee was recommending that the commission allocate $416,000 to purchase a 25.8 percent interest in an 873-acre conservation easement on Stan and Madeleine Murdock's Two Bar E Ranch. The Green River Valley Land Trust will contribute 25.8 percent also, while the Natural Resources Conservation Service will contribute 22.8 percent. To complete the deal, the Murdocks will donate more than 25 percent of the value of the easement, totaling $414,00. The entire conservation easement was valued at $1.6 million.

Sullivan explained that the recommendation was based on the ranch's agricultural viability, wildlife values and community benefits, as well as the recognition that there are high development pressures surrounding the ranch.

Before opening the meeting to public comment, Commission Chairman Gordon Johnston said, "We're not going to argue the whole PDR program again."

Several people attending the meeting spoke in favor of the county acquiring an interest in the conservation easement, including Rita Donham, who serves on the PDR review committee, and Bernie Holz of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.

Pinedale's Bob Harrower, who has filed a lawsuit challenging the legality of the county PDR program, asked about the time period for closing the deal, if it were approved. Johnston replied that it was his understanding that the hope was to close the deal before the end of the year.

Harrower reminded the commission that his attorneys had filed a request for summary judgment in the PDR lawsuit and that the county had asked for extension of time to answer request for summary judgment, with that deadline being Sept. 7.

Harrower said, "It just looks rather curious that the county asked for extension of time, and during the extension period," the commission decides to vote on funding a PDR project.

Graham said the time extension was "not related to any of this."

Pinedale's Chuck Vitt asked the commission why it was insisting on making the decision on Friday, while the lawsuit is pending. He asked of the "necessity to this rush to judgment."

Johnston replied that it was "not a rush to judgment ... I feel that it is time to do something."

Commissioner Betty Fear gave her view, first pointing to the number of contentious planning and zoning issues over development occurring near Pinedale

"We have a real problem with subdivisions in that area," Fear said, noting that as the town expands, it will keep expanding in that direction, toward the Murdock ranch.

"This is a logical place to be providing open space, particularly for the town of Pinedale," she said. "If left the way they are, it will have to be subdivided."

Vitt responded, "We can't buy them all," and suggested that placing conservation easement on a property makes it more attractive for subdividing next to this valuable open space.

John Linn of Big Piney, who just won the Republican nomination for county commission, beating out Johnston three-to-one, noted that he had made it clear in his campaign that if he were elected, he would vote to do away with the PDR program.

"I think if the commissioners needed a public opinion poll, they got it," Linn said, asserting that to vote for the purchase of a conservation easement at this time "would be a vote against the people's will."

Commissioner Bill Cramer said he wouldn't vote for the program because he doesn't believe that it provides an appropriate cost-to-benefit ratio to the taxpayers of the county.

"I have no doubt this is a wonderful program," Cramer said. "What I have a doubt about is who is going to fund it. What is the mechanism to fund it?"

Cramer said he believes that most people in the county are opposed to the county funding the PDR program because the commission is spending general fund money in doing so.

"I can't support it and won't vote in favor of it at this time," Cramer said.

Fear made the motion, seconded by Johnston, to move forward with the purchase of the conservation easement on the Murdock property. Cramer was the lone vote in opposition, so the motion carried.

"So that's it folks," Johnston said. "The train is starting down the tracks."

As her last item on the agenda, Sullivan asked the commission to also vote to move forward with continuing the entire PDR program by allocating another $750,000 and opening up another application period.

The commission declined to take action on the request, with Fear noting that the budget season had just gone by without an allocation of money for the program. With the lawsuit pending, Fear suggested the county "wait and see, give it some time."

Sullivan suggested, "I also believe if this program is not continued, it may be too late."

The commission thanked the PDR review committee for its efforts but didn't take any further action.

Later in the day, Sublette County Attorney Van Graham came to the commission meeting and told the commissioners Harrower's attorney in the lawsuit challenging the PDR program had already contacted him. Graham said the attorney, Joseph Becker of Mountain States Legal Foundation, wanted a commitment that the county would not close on the Murdock conservation easement deal before the end of September. The commission agreed that they would not close on the deal before until then, so Graham was authorized to make that commitment to Becker.

Contacted Tuesday morning, Becker asserted that Mountain States Legal Foundation would take any and all action needed to protect the interests of its clients.

"It's our plan to file tomorrow (Wednesday), to FedEx to the court on Thursday, a motion for preliminary injunction and temporary restraining order against the county" to keep the county from executing any agreement for a conservation easement, Becker said.

Mountain States Legal Foundation will ask the judge to hold a hearing on the motion sometime between the Sept. 7 deadline for the county's response to the firm's motion for summary judgment and Oct. 1, Becker said, thus explaining Becker's request for a commitment from the county not to close the deal before then.

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