The High Plains Initiative is near the end of its 15-month effort to promote dialogue on growth and planning in Platte and Goshen counties.
Launched in March 2010, the High Plains Initiative is a pilot project for Building the Wyoming We Want (BW3), a statewide non-profit planning organization.
Over the past year the High Plains Initiative (HPI) has fostered a lot of civil discussion about the future of this region. It has also drawn sharp criticism from about two-dozen individuals in a loosely organized, but vocal, opposition group.
Murmurs of controversy began last October at a public meeting of HPI. During a mapping exercise, participants were asked to share ideas for how they would like the region to grow by drawing on maps of their county.
In the process, a citizen drew an imaginary public path along a river. Another participant protested that the desired route crossed private property, saying the land in question belonged to a family member who was not present at the meeting.
In a small community where property owners know one another, drawing a line over private land without input from the owner is seen as highly presumptuous, and it struck a nerve.
“It was intended to be a conceptual exercise. But in real Wyoming where real people own property on a map, people take offense to that,” said Dan Kirkbride, a BW3 board member and past Platte County commissioner.
From that seed of mistrust grew a concerted effort to locate the origins of HPI and discern whether it threatens private property rights.
“The concerns and the questions are just where all of this starts, where the High Plains Initiative begins,” said local rancher Sherri Cullen. “I have seen the research that shows they are connected with other groups that I don’t agree with.”
HPI materials claim its process is meant to help residents identify what they value about their communities. By seeing various growth projections, residents can better articulate what they want their counties to look like in the future.
But members of the property-rights group view the efforts as a non-local, top-down regulatory assault on their rights. They claim it follows ideology created by the United Nations and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Is HPI not the grassroots planning effort that former Gov. Dave Freudenthal and BW3 said it was? Grappling with that question did not bring about consensus in Platte and Goshen counties. But leaders say it did generate passionate local conversation and engagement necessary to such efforts.
Property Rights & the Outcome of HPI
At the March 15 meeting of the Platte County Commission, critics made a presentation regarding HPI’s relation to property rights, and called for the commission to halt HPI immediately.
The principal speakers were Cheri Steinmetz, an unsuccessful 2010 state senate candidate, and Paul Miner, chairman of the Platte County Republicans.
Platte County commissioner Terry Stevenson said the county took no action on the request to stop HPI, on the premise that HPI had the right to public assembly and free speech given to any group.
At the same time, Stevenson stressed that the conclusions of HPI would result in no special legal authority over the planning process, which has always remained firmly in the hands of elected officials and their appointees.
In a March 26 article published in the Wyoming Livestock Roundup Steinmetz expressed her view that BW3 and HPI are conceptually related to the United Nations Agenda 21 and the EPA’s Smart Growth program.
Individuals also brought their criticisms to the April 25-28 meetings of HPI, where citizens were asked to provide input on a variety of growth scenarios created in response to their input in 2010.
Kirkbride said the total number of participants at the April meetings dropped to 125 residents, compared to the 300 who showed up for the October mapping workshops.
The opposition group may have scared away participants from last fall who were looking forward to thinking about the region’s future, said Anja Bendel, BW3 steering committee member and director of the economic development district for Platte, Goshen, Laramie and Albany counties.
Platte County Cbommissioner Terry Stevenson said the opposition group spoke at length at the recent meetings, and many who had participated in the October HPI meetings got up and left as the evening wore on into the night.
Despite the perceived flagging of enthusiasm for the effort, the High Plains Initiative steering committee still gathered plenty of information. They have a wide variety of perspectives to consider as they put the finishing touches on a 50-plus-page document that summarizes how Platte and Goshen County residents hope growth will occur in the region. The committee is aiming to complete the document by late June.
Stevenson and Goshen County commissioner Ross Newman say the document will contain a general set of observations about attitudes toward growth, rather than a clear set of policy recommendations for county commissioners to consider.
“If you had 40 percent of the county that voted a certain way, it might be real strong support for the commissioners taking a certain approach,” said Kirkbride. “We didn’t have that kind of participation and there wasn’t a real trend.”
Instead of making recommendations for where growth should occur, the HPI document will describe desired outcomes in a more general format, according to Kirkbride.
It will also include the perspective of residents who opposed HPI, said Bendel.
Stevenson said he’s confident the document will gain the approval of those opposed to HPI.
“My attitude is when they see the product that the High Plains Initiative comes out with that they are not going to have any problem with it. I think they will be pleasantly surprised,” said Stevenson.
Newman had a similar conclusion.
“I don’t think this document will contradict property rights. At the end of the day the final document will be non-threatening.”
Origins of the Property Rights Group
Steinmetz, Cullen and others say they have concerns about HPI’s origins because it receives technical support from non-local organizations.
“There’s a lot of information on the Internet,” Cullen said. “You (read the reports sent out by HPI) and get key words out of there. This is connected with Envision Utah. You can do research on that and get a big picture of a common thread.”
Steinmetz and Cullen also researched Heart + Mind Strategies, the polling company that phoned more than 200 Platte and Goshen County residents last June.
When contacted by WyoFile, Steinmetz declined to give an interview. But she did offer a written summary of her criticisms of HPI and its polling methods.
“I am one of many citizens in Goshen and Platte Counties who do not support BW3 or HPI. We oppose the publication of any vision document as produced by survey of less than 300 residents out of the approximately 22,000 residents of both counties,” Steinmetz wrote.
Cullen questioned the motives of the polling company.
“We don’t need any involvement from Heart and Mind (Strategies). Basically, they are an advertising company. They are experts on strategies to convince people of things, whether to buy a product or accept an idea. I don’t like their philosophies,” she said.
Some private property advocates say that Smart Growth and Agenda 21 use collaborative decision-making as a veiled method of creating consensus on the reduction of property rights.
Steinmetz said she and others oppose programs based on such an agenda.
“We believe in individual rights as guaranteed by our Constitution rather than collective rights, group consensus, and government restrictions on the use of private property for the perceived common good,” Steinmetz wrote.
Some who oppose Smart Growth say land planning limits the ways a landowner can use their property, thereby doing harm to the capitalist system.
Cullen echoed that idea, saying, “We need to be able to use our property rights in a way that we say is a profitable business. That’s what makes private enterprise work, is people operating their business in the best way they can do it — not the way the government would do it or somebody less knowledgeable about their business would do it.”
Cullen continued, “The private property rights and enterprise system is what gives people the incentive to work and make this a better country.”
There are instances in which Smart Growth proponents favor mixed-use developments that do exactly what Cullen advocates: provide property-owners greater freedom from zoning regulations so that businesses can be placed next to homes. An example was discussed in this recent Casper Star Tribune article.
Origins of BW3 and Connection to Envision Utah
While HPI may have conceptual similarities to other land use planning models used across the nation, and the world, its direct origin came in response to the Building the Wyoming We Want conferences of 2008 and 2009.
At those events, former Gov. Dave Freudenthal called for local communities to begin conversations about growth before they are overrun by it. He was inspired by the experiences of Colorado and Utah, where growth turned rural areas into urban zones before communities had time to effectively plan.
Rather than advocating a top-down approach, Freudenthal said he aimed to galvanize local residents to take notice of how rural development was reshaping the state. Remote subdivisions had been shown to place new burdens on taxpayers to provide expensive services. (See: The Cost of Community Services for Rural Residential Development in Wyoming.)
In part, the BW3 effort advised citizens to engage in guiding growth in such a way that their local governments could live with less tax revenue without straining services.
In a BW3 news release, Freudenthal said, “I was asked in one of the press conferences if we have sort of a legislative package – we don’t. What I do have is a firm conviction that this time around, talking about growth in this state has to start here, and not in Cheyenne. And by ‘here’ I mean in the communities around the state.”
In the same release, U.S. Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyoming) endorsed BW3’s call for Wyoming to start guiding its growth.
“If we don’t make these choices ourselves, Washington will force one of its ‘one size fits all’ solutions on us,” Barrasso stated.
After the June 2009 BW3 conference, Ross Newman said the Platte and Goshen County economic development groups independently applied to serve as a pilot project for the BW3 planning model. BW3 asked them to work together on the project because their region shared so many similarities.
Platte and Goshen County commissioners directed their support, and contributed several thousand dollars of county funds to the effort, hoping to gather input that would reveal a vision for these low-growth counties where the population has remained stagnant for more than 20 years.
(Click here for BW3 Funding information.)
At the September 28, 2010, HPI Growth Summit, commissioner Ross Newman said, “This process is important to me as a resident and rancher in Goshen County, who grew up here and chose to live here. To see our values preserved for future generations it is also important to me in my role as a county commissioner to receive public input to help guide our future decisions.”
The effort seemed well timed as the counties saw increased wind development and the potential for large amount of growth through the Niobrara oil exploration play.
Past Platte County commissioner Dan Kirkbride explained his support for the effort saying, “When I voted (for Platte County) to fund the project I hoped it would educate some people and we’d come up with a few good ideas. As an elected official, having vision is one of the hardest things to do. Thinking five, ten, twenty years out, that’s the hardest thing.”
HPI embraced a planning model inspired by the work of Envision Utah, a planning non-profit that rallied 10 counties along the Wasatch Front to create a regional plan to preserve the small community atmosphere residents said they valued. Envision Utah used GIS and 3-D visioning software to illustrate possible outcomes of different planning scenarios.
Envision Utah’s work was highlighted at the first BW3 conference.
In a pattern that mirrors the experience of HPI, when Envision Utah became more visible it encountered opposition from the libertarian Sutherland Institute, which feared that planning would limit property rights. The organization’s history (p. 51) tells how the opposition was resolved:
“Envision Utah met with both organizations and worked to communicate its belief that quality growth coordination would actually preserve and expand long-term personal choices. Envision Utah also found common ground with these voices in their belief that government regulation and zoning restrictions were already too restrictive in some areas of Utah, and actually restricted the free market from providing adequate living options for residents.”
Adapting to Public Input and Lessons for BW3
Members of the HPI steering committee say that the process and the opposition has taught them a lot about planning in their communities.
“We reached the conclusion that that was overreaching; to include in the document a map that showed the walking path (which set off the initial controversy),” said Newman.
Letting such developments occur through the normal planning processes is a basic sign of respect of private property, he added.
“To draw a line (on private property) that says this is a walking path, that’s not appropriate. I’d be the first one to concede that,” Newman said.
After the initial controversy about the mapping exercise, HPI adapted its maps so that they no longer showed detailed close-ups where individual property parcels could be identified. The new maps show general trends.
“But they don’t place things in a certain spot so … people don’t think we have in mind to condemn someone’s property as a protected area or a park,” Kirkbride said. “We never intended that.”
In addition to allowing HPI to respond to public feedback, the process provided a forum for discussing new planning concepts to local citizens. Examples include how sprawl effects taxes and services, and about growth strategies such as cluster subdivisions and infill development.
“I’m not sure that we got to discuss those as much as we wanted. I think the opposition sidetracked us,” said Kirkbride.
A major aspect of HPI was trying to dispel myths and fears. For example, the steering committee tried to clarify that HPI is in no way a policy-making entity: “Anything that comes out of the HPI document has no authority,” Newman said.
“The only way to implement any part of that is through the normal statutory process that the Goshen County commissioners would have to use in terms of land use issues. That’s public hearing and the whole nine yards. Any time you are under state statute, there is a very public process,” Newman said.
Stevenson puts his faith in the public involvement and transparency of HPI.
“Even if it were as nefarious as some people think it is, the members of HPI are discerning enough to keep it from actually being that way,” he said.
HPI committee members said they also learned about the persistence of misinformation, particularly the belief that HPI could entangle the county in the federal governing process. Kirkbride said that simply isn’t true.
“It was much more benign and innocent document than (the property rights group) thought it was, but we haven’t convinced them of that,” Kirkbride said.
In the end, that may not matter since HPI did not set out to convince the public to accept a preconceived planning agenda, but instead to gather public opinion.
“We had more than 300 people participate in this process. … We were simply asking for public input and we took the public input that came,” Newman said.
While Newman has been an active member of the HPI steering committee, he said he has been careful to not to guide it to a specific outcome.
The steering committee is co-chaired by two local citizens: Julie Kilty and Cindy Witt.
“In my commentary on these drafts I’ve deferred to the other members because this is a document that ultimately is intended to influence political leaders such as myself. Being engaged in the process is one thing, driving the process is altogether different,” Newman said.
Newman and Kirkbride agreed that Platte and Goshen County’s experience with HPI will not necessarily be the same for other communities that choose to work with the BW3 process.
“There is a perception (in Goshen and Platte counties) that population isn’t dense and regulation doesn’t need to be very specific. And a lot of people would like to be let alone and not be bothered with (planning),” Kirkbride said. “When you take (BW3) to a county that doesn’t perceive so much of a need, you can run into indifference or difficulty.”
Kirkbride said when HPI releases its final document to public he expects to hear more comments and critiques. But that’s part of the process.
Newman judges the effort a success even though 300 HPI participants are not a large number compared to the over 20,000 residents of the counties.
“We sometimes do some things as county commissioners that are pretty sleepy, and the public simply isn’t interested enough to be engaged,” Newman said. “We managed to generate some very significant public interest in thinking about the future of our community and, bottom-line, that’s what it’s all about.”
Greg Nickerson is a writer, historian and filmmaker from Big Horn. Contact him at 307-752-6031 or [email protected]