A very large subdivision riles a very small town

  • Big Horn, Wyoming

    Diane Sylvain
  • Developer Homer Scott Jr. at Cheyenne courthouse - Fred Yates, Casper Sta


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.

Whatever the 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 and newcomers

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 wealthy.

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 ranch hands.

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 fairways.

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" town.

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."

Ordinarily, 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) permit.

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 community.

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 the vote.

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 year.

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 commissioners.

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 homes.

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?"

Homer Scott 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.

"When we 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. "

Scott 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 housing shortage.

"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 more compelling."

A decision is expected later this year.

The writer works out of Sheridan, Wyo.

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