PINEDALE — An upscale resort that would have nearly doubled the population of Bondurant was denied Tuesday by Sublette County commissioners who said the high-end guest ranch didn’t square with their comprehensive plan.
An application for an upzone requested by TD Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts, who owns the roughly 1,300-acre Jackson Fork Ranch, had already come up short with the Sublette County Planning and Zoning Board, which recommended against approving the plans 10 days before. The 45-unit destination resort, which was paired with an “employee village” for 23 workers, was buried more permanently by the commission, which voted 4-to-1 to deny a 43-acre upzone scattered across three parcels on a sagebrush steppe bench overlooking Upper Hoback River and Ricketts’ working bison ranch.
Commissioner Doug Vickrey said that he could not cast a no vote on the basis of community opposition but would do so to respect 10 community goals enshrined in Sublette County’s 15-year-old comprehensive plan.
“This does not meet seven of them, it does not meet eight of them,” Vickrey told four dozen Bondurant residents who convened in Pinedale for the meeting.
Ricketts was not present for the meeting, but speaking on his behalf for over two hours was a team of consultants. Ricketts agent Morgan Fischer, the primary project proponent, described the proposed resort as the 78-year-old financier’s long-term strategy to keep the ranch within his family and ensure the family trust didn’t sell off a money-losing operation.
“Right or wrong, this is his vision,” Fischer said. “It has nothing to do about money, it has everything to do with preservation of this ranch.”
Fischer described the resort as conservation-themed, and told commissioners that activities would include bird watching, cross-country skiing and other relatively environmentally benign endeavors. He volunteered to subscribe to conditions that would have banned all-terrain vehicle use and pledged to bring in more consultants to more carefully assess any impacts.
Still, many residents of the approximately 90-person community of Bondurant were deadset against adding a $40 million to $50 million resort to the rustic and remote Hoback basin. In the weeks leading up to the vote, Sublette County planning director Dennis Fornstrom received 65 letters opposing the plans and just two letters and two phone calls in its favor.
Longtime Bondurant resident Melissa Harrison, a Jackson Hole real estate agent, was the first member of the public to address the commission. She doubted the purported economic benefits of the resort that Fischer and other consultants touted earlier.
“Allowing incoherent spot zoning for a service-based resort … is not going to be successful for our county financially,” Harrison said. “It will erode our local culture, it will harm our natural resources and wildlife, it will drive up the cost of living and it will set a devastating precedent for the allowance of spot zoning in our county.”
The Jackson Fork Ranch is zoned as agricultural land, which can be subdivided into parcels no smaller than 35 acres apiece.
The lone commissioner who declined to vote down the Jackson Fork Ranch resort plans was cattleman Joel Bousman, who explained that he had seen what happens when working ranches are subdivided. Properties near his own land in Boulder were cut up into 35-acre parcels, and the livestock that once grazed those lands are gone. With more than two square miles of property snaking along Upper Hoback River Road, Ricketts could technically cut his land up into 36 luxury home sites.
Ricketts, whose family owns the Chicago Cubs, has shown a philanthropic bent and a commitment to land and wildlife conservation in the past. A conservation foundation in his name funds common loon, trumpeter swan, Clark’s nutcracker and aspen regeneration-related research. In 2013 he stepped in with an 11th-hour, $750,000 donation to the Trust for Public Land, which had organized an $8.75 million deal to buy 58,000 acres of Hoback basin natural gas leases targeted for development by Plains Production and Exploration, known as PXP.
While the Bondurant community heralded Ricketts’ philanthropy seven years ago they were unable to come to terms on a shared vision for a luxury guest ranch in their basin.
Residents’ concerns weren’t just rooted in the cultural shifts that would inevitably come with a busier Bondurant, if the development were approved. The proposed resort would have intersected with the state of Wyoming’s first protected migration route, a path used by mule deer that spend winter in the Red Desert but venture north each summer into the Bridger-Teton National Forest. Kent Werlin, a Biota Consulting ecologist hired by Ricketts, said that the harm to migratory deer would be “negligible,” and that the resort was going above and beyond to leave open space for deer.
But seasonal Upper Hoback River Road resident Lisi Krall took a dim view of the suggestion that Ricketts had the good of the land and valley in mind when he conceived the resort.
“We’ve been presented here with the argument that this is a conservation proposition,” Krall said. “That what Mr. Ricketts wants to do is make it a conservation resort, and people will come in here and bird and cross country-ski.
“And impinge on migratory paths, overfish rivers, and create traffic problems and completely reshape the community,” she added wryly. “I have to ask, ‘What are we conserving?’”