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Commission suggests expansion of rural party rules

Shift allows commercial parties in areas other than agriculture zones.
Robin and Cherrie Siegfriend moved the old Wilson Sinclair gas station to their Lazy Moose Ranch on Fish Creek Road in 2001 and began renting it for parties. BRADLY J. BONER / NEWS&GUIDE FILE
By Kevin Huelsmann, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
December 05, 2012

After months of deliberations, a slim majority of Teton County commissioners tentatively agreed Tuesday to scrap a major provision of proposed regulations for rural events and parties.

Three commissioners said the new rules shouldn’t require large, rural landowners to show that they’re using their land for some type of agricultural purpose.

Commissioners are considering a permit system that would regulate weddings, receptions and other gatherings.

Limiting events to agricultural lands, commissioners said, might detract from the main goal of the new regulations: to protect open space and give landowners a chance to make money from their land without having to develop it.

“It’s potentially defeating the purpose of what we’re doing,” County Commissioner Hank Phibbs said Tuesday during a meeting that lasted nearly five hours. “Agriculture is a use. It is not the use condition of the property.”

The agricultural clause also could create an enforcement headache for planners, who would have to determine whether landowners truly were meeting the requirements, commissioners said.

County Commissioner Paul Vogelheim questioned whether the county’s definition of agriculture would even suffice, saying, “Rumor has it, if they put a beehive up, it’s an agricultural use.

“It opens up this gaming,” Vogelheim said. “Our primary goal is open space. It’s very clear.”

County Commission Chairman Ben Ellis broke ranks with the rest of the board, saying he wouldn’t vote for the regulations if they didn’t tie the ability to host special events with some kind of agricultural activity.

“It’s opening it up to anybody who has an area that is 70 acres,” Ellis said Tuesday after commissioners’ meeting. “It actually could be encouraging development on those sites.”

Commissioner Andy Schwartz agreed with Phibbs in principle, but said board members should keep the agricultural link in the regulations for now.

Though they addressed their remaining concerns and staked out their positions on a number of issues, commissioners didn’t take a final vote at Tuesday’s meeting.

The proposed changes were significant enough that they warranted a thorough review by planners and legal staffers, commissioners said. The rules now are slated to come before commissioners on Dec. 18.

Over the last few months, the discussion about these rules has sparked hundreds of pages of emails and letters to county commissioners. Every meeting commissioners have held to talk about them also has attracted a significant amount of public comment.

Tuesday proved to be no different.

Residents, attorneys, real estate brokers and consultants lined up before commissioners over the course of an hour to weigh in on the proposed rules.

Those in favor of the proposed regulations stressed how important these events are to ranchers and large landowners who are trying to find a way to make money from their land without having to carve it up for developers.

“These are too strict,” county planning commissioner Patricia Russell said of the regulations. “The county might lose an important tool we have to incentivize landowners to preserve open space.”

Others said commissioners shouldn’t assign arbitrary numbers and restrictions. Specific conditions and standards should be applied to individual applications.

“You don’t enforce affordable housing today, what makes you think you’re going to enforce rules about a guy throwing three parties?” said developer Greg Prugh. He recounted a Facebook post to commissioners in which someone said, “We can’t have fun on any land.”

On the other side of the issue, residents asked that commissioners take more steps to ensure that they’re not opening up rural lands to an entirely new commercial use.

They said commissioners need to clearly outline protections for wildlife and neighborhood character in the regulations.

“It’s a mishmash of references to these kinds of things,” Sheridan attorney Kim Cannon said.

Cannon, who was hired by a landowner who lives next to one potential event site, said commissioners have failed to establish a “coherent thread” through the regulations to limit potential impacts of these types of events.

The Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance urged commissioners to take a gradual approach to putting regulations for rural parts of the county in place. Commissioners should adopt a restrictive policy first, then see how it works for a year or two. After that, elected officials could evaluate the regulations and make any necessary changes when they revamp land-use rules for all of the rural areas in the county.

“A more restrictive policy is precautionary,” alliance Executive Director Trevor Stevenson said. “It’s a way to be more fair. It’s much more difficult to do it the other way around.”

The proposed regulations are an attempt by county officials to address events and parties that already happen at properties throughout the county.  The basic premise is that landowners who have at least 70 acres could apply to host events like wedding receptions, retreats and parties if they meet certain criteria.

They say the regulations would allow them a level of control they’ve never had. The rules would create a framework through which a specific proposal would be reviewed. Each applicant would still have to go through a separate review process before being allowed to host events.

The regulations would apply to 131 properties, planners estimate. A critic of the proposal, Loring Woodman, said landowners could subdivide those into 281 sites.

“Anyone living next to or within these rural zoned areas may end up just 300 feet from reception/event sites with regularly scheduled commercial operations,” Woodman said in an ad that ran in the News&Guide last week. “Yet you and your neighbors cannot rent out your own homes for less than 30 days because that is considered a commercial use and therefore disruptive to community character. The county either cannot or will not address this double standard.”

Though they didn’t make a final decision, commissioners made several significant changes to the proposed rules.

They removed a section that would have allowed landowners to build new structures if their existing ones couldn’t meet building or fire codes. Instead, commissioners said only existing structures could be used. They added one caveat that allows them to make exceptions for “minor alterations.”

They also modified the maximum number of events allowed under the regulations, agreeing to two events per week, and added provisions that would exempt small, ancillary events.

Commissioners said no more than 15 events would be allowed per summer or winter season. The limit had previously been 20.

They discussed changing the required distance between an event site and one’s property lines, but ultimately decided they had no legal justification for anything beyond 300 feet.

Residents have consistently asked commissioners to increase the setback requirement, saying 300 feet doesn’t afford real protection.

“From a practical and legal place, unless there’s a clear and measurable impact, I don’t see how you can go up,” Ellis said.

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