BIG HORN, Wyo. - Residents of this unincorporated township stared bug-eyed at the lead story in the afternoon paper nearly two years ago. "700 homes planned for subdivision," the 72-point headline read. Disbelief reigned; seven hundred homes could mean 2,100 people. Big Horn, which doesn't even have paved streets, barely had 400 residents.
But it wasn't
a mistake. Homer Scott Jr., a member of one of Wyoming's wealthiest
families and president of the local bank, had purchased the
606-acre Powderhorn Ranch one mile north of Big Horn. He had a
vision: a championship golf course and one of the largest
vacation-home developments Wyoming had ever seen.
Not surprisingly, few locals shared the dream.
Though the Powderhorn project slid through the county planning
process and Scott started building his golf course last summer, an
opposition group mounted a legal countercharge. Now, the Sheridan
Planning Association's battle has reached the Wyoming Supreme
Court, where the group hopes to force Sheridan County officials to
cut the number of homes in half.
outcome, the contest over Powderhorn has taken on a meaning larger
than the number of houses. It has become a battle over a
community's sense of itself.
Old money, bungalows
Big Horn is not
your typical Wyoming hamlet, thrown up during a land or energy
boom, then left to deflate during a bust. By Wyoming standards it
represents old money. Settled in large part by remittance men from
titled English families, it continues to retain and attract the
It has the oldest bar in Wyoming and
the oldest polo club in the nation, founded in 1897. But also
nestled in the willow and cottonwood bottoms are the bungalows and
trailers of coal miners, diesel mechanics, county employees, and
Out of this diversity, however,
sprang unanimity. At a meeting held in Big Horn in June 1994,
long-time resident Charlie Whiton asked a gathering of about 50
people, "Is anyone here in favor of this development?" Not one hand
went up. This meeting was followed by others and more than 240
letters to the Sheridan County Commissioners.
The protests registered a sense of cultural
unease: The development sits on some of the best water rights in
Sheridan County. It irked many people that irrigation water once
used for alfalfa would now be used to irrigate greens and
The locals also feared that the project
would mark the Sheridan area as the next trendy oasis. Its
above-average rainfall, access to the Bighorn Mountains, and lack
of wind has drawn a slow and steady trickle of newcomers. But so
far it has resisted becoming another Jackson or Bozeman, largely
because it lacks a ski area.
Hunting and fishing
have long traditions here, but trophy-home builders have been rare.
Sheridan County relies on the traditional industries: the federal
government, two coal mines, a sawmill, a community college and a
strong ranching community.
When the Tucson-based
Sonoran Institute came to the area in 1995 to hold a workshop on
Sheridan County's future, one woman said her vision of tomorrow
included jobs for kids. "And that doesn't mean making beds for
Californians." Most of the hundreds who attended echoed her
distaste for a "New West"
What good's a plan?
As one of the few counties in Wyoming with a
comprehensive zoning plan, Sheridan seemed well-prepared to deal
with a large-scale subdivision proposal. Signed in 1979 and updated
in 1981 and 1985, the plan specifically demarcates the area around
the Powderhorn as "low density."
that would mean no more than one house per two acres. But Scott
wanted to double that density, so the county told him to submit an
application for a Planned Unit Development (PUD)
A PUD is "a way of saying to the
developer, "We're giving you relief from the code. What are you
giving us?" " says Sheridan County planner Bruce Bowman. Bowman, a
former planner for Jackson, had been on the job only two weeks in
April of 1995 when he was asked to make a recommendation on the
Powderhorn. He warned the county planning commission that the
permit Scott wanted benefited the developer much more than the
In addition to the extra density, the
Powderhorn PUD allowed Scott to dedicate 30 percent of the site for
an 18-hole golf course. Such provisions are "extremely difficult to
justify," Bowman wrote in a staff report hurriedly prepared before
But that didn't seem to trouble the
county planning board or the county commissioners. They granted
Scott's PUD permit on the condition that he cut the development to
600 homes and limit development to 30 homes per
The county's willingness to ignore its plan
angered many locals. "I purchased property adjacent to the
Powderhorn Ranch with the knowledge that the area was designated
for low density development and with the faith that the rural
residential character of the area is protected by the zoning
resolution," wrote Stephen Dudley in a letter to the
Dudley, who works as a consultant
with residential real estate developers, noted "this is not an
issue of "growth versus no growth" or of "planned development
versus hodgepodge development." This is an issue of viability of
the comprehensive plan."
Dudley is a member of
the Sheridan Planning Association, a group that formed shortly
after Scott's intentions became public in the fall of 1994. The
association says its goal is not to thwart the Powderhorn, but
rather to hold down the density to 300
Another member, Ruth Miller, says that as
a newcomer to the community she was at first inclined to stay out
of the fray. But she changed her mind when she saw that many of
those concerned were not rich landowners, but retired
schoolteachers. "I thought to myself, "these people have been here
for years. They make up the community. If the Powderhorn comes in,
these people are not going to be able to live here. Why should they
be chased out of their own homes?"
says Sheridan will grow in spite of people's concerns. "It's
controlled growth or urban sprawl," he says. "We could have reduced
the density, but we would have to charge much more for a lot. There
would be a threefold increase in the price of lots. We don't want
to create an exclusive country club.
tell people they can buy a lot and lifetime golf membership for
$50,000, they look at you like you've got leprosy," he said. "In
Jackson, a lot on a golf course would cost you $250,000 and you'd
still have to pay a golf membership."
Uncomfortable with the publicity his project is
attracting, Scott says the local group opposing him is tilting at
windmills. "I don't think we will see 300 homes out there for at
least 15 years. Only a handful are being built at this time.
Developments of this type rarely fill up. "
has failed to sway members of the Sheridan Planning Association.
Last June, the planning association started a legal assault on the
Powderhorn. They hired attorney Deb Wendtland, a self-professed
conservative with a reputation for defending unpopular land-use
issues. Wendtland started attending every meeting of the planning
and zoning commission and those of the county commissioners. She
asked why the county had failed to file studies that addressed
Powderhorn's solid waste, geology and sewage. She also challenged
the county's assertion that the project is needed to address a
"The planning commission says
it repeatedly has been informed of the need for housing in the
county," said Wendtland. "OK, so where's the documentation? All
that's in that file is a hand-written sheet filled out by one real
estate agent on Sheridan's need for new homes."
Attorneys for Scott and Sheridan County have
argued that the Powderhorn's planning and central septic system
were superior to standard rural-residental zoning. As for the
county plan, it "was a dynamic document, not carved in stone. The
original meaning of the comprehensive plan is not in concrete,"
said Carol Doughty, an attorney for the county.
Wendtland said that this case was not just about
a housing development, "but about land-use planning in the state as
a whole. And at no time in our history has land-use planning been
A decision is expected later
The writer works out
of Sheridan, Wyo.