Sage grouse order delays work on West’s ranch

CODY — A variance request put forth before the Park County commissioners on behalf of Kanye West has been withdrawn in response to Gov. Mark Gordon’s sage grouse executive order.

“It’s so broad, it can stop development,” said attorney Colin Simpson, a West representative.

Under the SGEO delivered in August, projects within a designated sage grouse core population area must be assessed for compliance with Wyoming Game and Fish before issuing a permit for work. 

According to G&F officials, since West’s project is within one of these core areas, it will require a density and disturbance analysis. After a technical review is completed by the Wyoming Geographic Information Science Center, G&F will make recommendations on permitting to Park County.

“(This) ought to be concerning to everybody with the impact it has to potential development in Park County and any county in Wyoming,” Simpson said. 

The review analyzes the initial radius of a project and how that compares with greater sage grouse core population areas, and subsequent radius of any core population area leks within the project area. 

“It is rather impactful in Park County. It covers a broad area,” said Joy Hill, Park County planning and zoning director.

The core area for Park County falls north and south of downtown Cody along WYO 120, and to the east on both sides of the Greybull Highway.

When presenting to the commissioners on Tuesday, Simpson could not verify if West Ranch sits inside the core area, but G&F staff and the site verified it does.

Since the SGEO is so new, county officials and commissioners are still trying to wrap their heads around its impacts and exact rules.

“We’re wondering what we’ve approved in the last 12 months that fits into this,” commission chair Jake Fulkerson said.

Ambiguity also exists about how the SGEO applies to projects such as West’s that are less than 5 acres.

“Because of that ambiguity, because the applicant wants to do things right, and we’re trying to figure out how to do that, we’ll just withdraw the request,” Simpson said.

One other significant stipulation of the SGEO is projects must be at least .6 miles from sage grouse leks, and human activity in the project zone may only occur July 1-March 14.

Furthermore, projects that disturb more than 1 acre of land must obtain a Stormwater Pollution Prevention Permit from the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality. West’s project is planned for 1.6 acres of land. 

Simpson, representing West and his Psalm 2019 business entity, was planning to come before the board requesting a variance to waive a site plan review and a corresponding approval before enacting dirt preparation for a meditation structure West is planning to build on his property, the former Monster Lake Ranch. That “large impact structure” requires a special use permit per county planning and zoning regulations.

Approval of the variance would not have eliminated, but only delayed the need for site plan review and special use permit approval.

Representatives for West had already come before the planning and zoning commission in November to build the structure. However, shortly before coming before that board on Nov. 19, West altered his plans to that structure to include a residential element, which changed the facility’s zoning. 

Then, in a letter sent to the county Nov. 26, Simpson rescinded the residential aspect.

“It was my understanding that your role was to serve as the clear line of communication between my office and the applicant following the deluge of confusion that ensued on November 19, 2019 with the change in the intended use of the structure,” Hill wrote in response to Simpson, “Unfortunately, here we are again with a lack of clarity on an intended use.” 

Also at that P&Z meeting, West’s representatives were criticized for performing significant dirt work and excavation before getting any permitting. They were told to halt the work immediately and it appears they did so.

It is that same work that Simpson was planning to seek approval to continue.

In his letter to the county, Simpson cited a “substantial” portion of the meditation structure would be underground and thus requiring a significant amount of dirt work. He said a few more weeks of work still remained and Harris Trucking was attempting to complete the excavating work before winter conditions became too prohibitive. 

“Because this large impact structure is substantially underground it presents special circumstances and conditions that are peculiar to the land and the structure,” P&Z staff member Kim Dillivan wrote in application documents. “Allowing the applicant to simply complete the excavation and dirt work will not prejudice the remainder of any site plan review process or of the application of the standards and regulations to the proposed structure.

Joy Hill denied the waiver request on Dec. 3 saying the proposal would involve a change in the type of land use. 

“The scale and peculiarity of the proposed project lends it to a complete and thorough review rather than conducting attenuated review or approving accelerated development,” Dillivan wrote, further mentioning rockfall risks around the structure.

She still permitted it to go before the commissioner board for its possible approval.

Dillivan also said that her denial does not preclude the site use plan and dirt work from happening in the future, but only halts any possibility for immediate recommencement of activities.

P&Z commission and staff members had also requested an answer to what West’s long term plans are for his property but Simpson had no answer.

The meditation structure will have a ground-level roof and a large opening in the roof. G&F staff expressed concern that animals might fall into this hole and proposed it be fenced to prevent big game from falling in and birds from nesting and roosting inside.

G&F also recommended on the original application that West not be allowed to perform construction from Nov. 15-April 30 due to the land being habitat for mule deer and other big game animals.

“The entire county as far as I can tell … everything I saw is, this is mule deer habitat,” Simpson said. “So what, then you can’t construct for six months? We do want to protect natural resources, but we do want to allow natural development.”