By Gregory Nickerson
Laramie—Gary and Diana Banbury are building their dream house at the base of Sheep Mountain, a wooded rise on the far western edge of the Laramie Plains.
The home site occupies a stunning location. Backlit clouds launch over the ridgeline and sail east across forty miles of wind-swept, open country toward the Laramie Range. Next to the house, a spring flows out of the mountain, watering a string of aspens. Snow falls on the dark forms of horses in the distance. Every so often, a herd of elk grazes on a hillside behind the house.
Right now, Gary Banbury is far from all of this, at his current home in southwest Virginia. But this month he is retiring from his job as a mining company executive and moving to his new house.
On the phone, Banbury sounds ecstatic. Building a home in Wyoming is a dream he and his wife Diana have been working on since they lived in Encampment early in his career. Banbury says that “owning a piece of Wyoming is special. You are buying land, and the cowboy culture. It’s like owning a piece of The Rock, and the rock is the Wyoming West.”
Property owners like the Banburys are at the center of an ongoing debate over land use and planning in Wyoming, a state protective of private property and the rights of owners to do what they want with their land. On the one hand, the Banburys have a clear vision of what is special about the state. On the other, their new house is in a ranchette subdivision, just the kind of development that some feel threatens the Wyoming dream.
In 2008, hundreds of Wyoming people gathered for two howling January days in Casper at Gov. Dave Freudenthal’s Building the Wyoming We Want Conference to voice concerns about unrestrained housing developments, the loss of open space, and the need to plan better for growth. Now, the national economic slowdown has brought a lull in Wyoming’s frenzy of subdividing. There seems to be time for citizens and their local government planning staff to step back, decide what they want and what they don’t want, and figure out how to direct new growth towards more desirable models.
There are, however, only tentative signs of that happening. Wyoming has a strong inclination to let private property owners take their own course. The tendency to undertake serious changes only in crisis may mean that Wyoming residents prefer to talk about creating a future they want, rather than take action.
In 2008, amid concern that development was destroying open space, the legislature gave counties the option of regulating subdivisions with lot sizes ranging from 35 to 140 acres. Previously, counties could only regulate subdivisions with lots smaller than 35 acres — meaning that developers could subdivide into larger parcels at will, with no requirements regarding roads, water, sewer, or power.
Under the 2008 law, counties can require large-tract developers to file plats, record contracts for deeds, and disclose plans for providing utilities, road maintenance, and fire protection. But only five counties out of 23 — Albany, Converse, Natrona, Park, and Sheridan — have actually taken on even these minimal new powers. Johnson County will likely adopt the statutes next month.
Polls have shown that most Wyoming people prefer incentives for protecting open space and encouraging desirable development, rather than restrictions on undesirable land use. In 2008, the legislature created such an incentive for “conservation design” — a process that, for taxation purposes, classifies open space within subdivisions as agricultural land instead of residential. To qualify, developers must cluster residential lots and leave most of the land open space.
Some developers who once took the simple course of cutting up ranches into large lots now say they’re considering the cluster development incentive. Again, though, it is not clear that counties will try to integrate this new option into their existing rules — a process that can create tax and regulatory tangles.
People involved in this issue believe there is time for Wyoming to preserve its unique qualities. Jim Magagna of the Wyoming Stockgrowers Association hopes the state will “make some sacrifices, and put more resources into [helping] us keep what we want. The nice thing about Wyoming is we still have the opportunity to do some things differently. A lot of other states have lost that.”
New planning models are slowly coming into use in certain corners of the state. Goshen and Platte County are gearing up for a planning process guided by the principles of Building the Wyoming We Want, and Lincoln County has had some success in fostering compact developments through a new zoning regime using incentives for developers.
Other communities have the opportunity to learn of these new models, embrace them, and build upon them to direct the course of new development. How successfully they do so before the next land rush remains to be seen.
The Why of a Wyoming Land Rush
Land developers know that tapping into the state’s romantic appeal is big business. One such developer is Benjamin “Tres” Brooks, president of the realty company that sold Gary Banbury his piece of Wyoming.
That lot is part of Wild Horse Ranch, a 14,800-acre subdivision split into 370 parcels that sprawl across miles of plains between the Big and Little Laramie Rivers. Counting state and federal acreage within the subdivision, the development’s 23,000 acres are almost a third bigger than Manhattan. It is one of five subdivisions in Wyoming created by the Brooks Realty Company, based in Scottsdale, Arizona.
Brooks Realty bought the ranch from Sean Mater, a land developer who had used the land as a sanctuary for wild horses adopted from the Bureau of Land Management. Brooks Realty paid $365 an acre for the 14,800 acres, or $5.4 million in 2006. The company also gave Mater a 10-year grazing lease for the wild horses.
The 35- to 40-acre parcels in Wild Horse Ranch now start at $1,995 an acre, though lots near Sheep Mountain have sold for up to $200,000. A conservative estimate of the development’s potential gross revenue is $26 to $30 million.
Until the recession hit, the state was seeing tens of thousands of acres of ranch land bought by developers and sold to buyers around the country.
Wyoming’s open spaces were being surveyed, divided, and sold at an astonishing rate. Brooks Realty’s Pine Ridge Ranch near Torrington sold all 187 lots in eight months in 2004-2005.
Clearly, the Wyoming development boom wasn’t all at the hands of Tres Brooks. He drew attention to the trend with large and aggressively advertised developments like the B.B. Brooks Ranch north of Casper, and with domain names like “Wyominglandrush.com”. But his subdivisions are only part of expanding development that has touched most Wyoming counties. Between 1998 and 2006, nearly 100,000 acres of Wyoming land were subdivided into lots of 35 acres or less.
That statewide count doesn’t include lots over 35 acres, which until 2008 were completely unregulated, under state law. Albany County planner Doug Bryant says that within in his county alone, nearly 13,000 acres of land have gone into large-tract developments in the last five years. During the 1990s, over 25,000 acres of Albany County were split into parcels larger than 35 acres.
Terry Cleveland, chairman of the Building the Wyoming We Want non-profit that has spun out of the governor’s 2008 conference, sees such rural development in all corners of the state, particularly areas with aesthetic value.
“Look at the east slope of the Bighorns, or Shell Valley, north and south fork of the Shoshone, north and west of Cheyenne,” he says. “Look at Laramie and Jelm, or Saratoga.”
A 2006 study estimated that by 2020, 80 percent of all new subdivisions in Wyoming would be in lots of 10 to 40 acres.
The common assumption that it’s Californians and East Coasters buying up this land doesn’t hold up. A University of Wyoming report last year found that many people living in rural-residential developments relocated there from in state. On average, they’ve already been in Wyoming for 13 years.
But there are outliers. Buyers at the Wild Horse Ranch hail from 40 states, Canada, England, and Mexico. Since 2007, only 10 percent of more than 200 owners have built on their parcels, and fewer than ten people have become full-time residents.
The lure of Wyoming land has roots in the desire and ability of well-to-do American to own property in the country.
“People love the idea of living on a larger piece of land,” says Tres Brooks. “They don’t like having a neighbor right next to them. They love the idea of some open space. Next to owning your own home, the idea of owning land is a dream for most people.”