Teton County orders golf resort to restore river bank

By Mike Koshmrl

Jackson Hole News&Guide

Via Wyoming News Exchange


JACKSON — Teton County officials have ruled that areas of the Snake River bank altered by a neighboring golf resort must be restored.

Since late summer the Snake River Sporting Club has been navigating “after-the-fact” permitting processes for building erosion and flood-control structures over several years without permission. County staff also identified a couple of inland projects as problems. The verdicts on most of the projects being scrutinized are now in. The county denied the permits.

For one site, Teton County Engineering Manager Amy Ramage said: “They have to put it back the way it was.”

Ramage was referring to an unauthorized berm and built-up riverbank that screened a quarry, ponds and stockyard for construction debris built at the inlet of an occasional Snake River channel known as “Trout Creek” (see map on page 16). The county decided work at the site violated numerous land development regulations and therefore must come out, be restored and be revegetated no later than Sept. 1.

The county’s decision is a financial blow to club owners. Christopher Swann, founder of Snake River Sporting Club’s owner, Cygnus Capital, declined to discuss the county’s determinations on a project-by-project basis, but he said he’s eager to put an end to the costly six-month dispute.

“In general these are things that we need to put behind us,” Swann said. “They’re not things that are worth a lot of consternation.”

“Frankly,” he said, “we felt a little broadsided with these accusations and the implication that we’re doing things maliciously or with ill-intent — there’s nothing further from the truth.”

Swann said that he would be collaborating with nonprofit organizations like the Snake River Fund and Greater Yellowstone Coalition to figure out how to conduct his business in better harmony with the Snake River in the future. Fighting the county’s orders, either through litigation or appeals, is not in the cards, he said.

“At the end of the day,” Swann said, “we’re going to do what the county wants us to do.”

Although landowners are allowed to protect their property from flooding, such work must comply with Teton County’s land development regulations, especially if changes are permanent. In the case of Snake River Sporting Club’s tinkering with the Trout Creek inlet, the earthwork did not comply with universal county codes that prohibit altering natural drainage patterns like the wild, unpredictable meanders of the Snake River.

“This site will likely have overbank flow, at some point in the future,” said Hamilton Smith, a Teton County senior planner who’s been in the thick of the Snake River Sporting Club review.

A bridge too many

Among county determinations on four other projects is an order to remove an unauthorized bridge that spans a more southerly stretch of the Trout Creek river braid by no later than Jan. 19. The same goes for boulder and riprap piles stockpiled on residential lots: They must go by Jan. 12.

Likewise, the county detected a pickleball court, built without notice or permission, during site visits. Now the county is instructing the club to deconstruct the court by July 1.

At least one final decision is not yet in. That’s the case for a 300-foot riprap levee that shields the 15th hole of the Sporting Club golf course from the Snake River, which is protected by the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act where it courses by the property 15 miles south of Jackson. The structure, which the club calls a “boulder trench,” has evidently been OK’d by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Bridger-Teton National Forest because it was constructed inland before a pulse of springtime high water turned it into the riverbank. But Teton County is not ready to make that call.

Federal agencies appear to have taken a backseat to Teton County in reviewing the club’s efforts to hold the line on the Snake’s eastern riverbank.

At the Bridger-Teton the person who has been most involved is Jackson District Ranger Mary Moore, and she declined an interview.

Mary Cernicek, the forest’s spokeswoman, said that Moore crafted a letter to Swann after a site visit last fall, but the missive was never mailed.

Cernicek said that the forest takes its cues from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. If the Corps were to determine that any of the Sporting Club projects needed federal permitting, then it would be run by the Bridger-Teton so the forest could determine if the work complied with the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act regulations. Those regs became law when 388 miles of the Snake and its tributaries were designated in 2008.

Mike Happold, director of the Army Corps’ Wyoming regulatory office, has not returned several phone calls left over months requesting an update on his agency’s review process.

Swann, who has met with Moore at the site, indicated that the Bridger-Teton isn’t concerned.

“The Forest Service told me in person that they ‘didn’t see a problem,’” he wrote in an email to Teton County’s Smith in November.

Forest Service employee Dave Cernicek first brought activity at the Sporting Club that he deemed questionable to the county’s attention. It’s his job, as Bridger-Teton’s Wild and Scenic Rivers coordinator, but he has not been authorized to talk to the News&Guide about Wild and Scenic regulatory compliance at the Sporting Club.

One Jackson Hole-based river advocacy group has gone on record to ask the Bridger-Teton to do its duty and follow the Wild and Scenic rules.

“The Snake River Fund is concerned that the forest is abdicating its responsibility for upholding the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act protections and process,” Jared Baecker, the fund’s director, wrote to Bridger-Teton Supervisor Tricia O’Connor in October. “The Snake River Fund requests that Bridger-Teton National Forest fulfill its obligation as the managing agency of the Snake River Headwaters Wild and Scenic Rivers corridor and evaluate the water resource projects under Section 7 of the Act. The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act provides procedures for due process, they should be abided by.”

Baecker said in an interview that the Snake River Fund’s biggest concern is bank stabilization.

“What we perceive is that the Snake River wants to head toward the Sporting Club, and stabilizing the bank is a big question mark,” Baecker said. “There’s a way to go about it in ways that we think represent the outstanding and remarkable values of the Snake River.”

Using more natural materials like rootballs could be an improvement over riprap, he said. Baecker hoped to hammer out issues like that in coming discussions with Swann.

Swann said he regretted how the whole Sporting Club saga played out. If Cernicek approached him directly, rather than going to the county, he said that he would have removed everything voluntarily.

“We spent six months and probably $100,000 on things that there really wasn’t any disagreement on,” Swann said. “Honestly, I don’t think the outcome is any different. If [Dave] Cernicek had sent that email directly to me or called me, I think all of these outcomes would have been exactly the same.”

Jackson town Councilor Jim Stanford, whose side job is a Snake River commercial boatman, said the county’s enforcement actions were “great news.”

“It’s a good start, and I’m glad that the county is holding the line,” Stanford said. “Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night. I feel like Tiny Tim.”

As a reporter for the Jackson Hole News and, after the 2002 merger, News&Guide, Stanford covered county deliberations on permitting the development of the former Snake River Bend Ranch. Ultimately, Teton County approved the Sporting Club’s predecessor, the Canyon Club, but only after three years of deliberations, 30-some public meetings and a planned residential development permit that came with 76 special conditions.

Two conservation easements administered by the Jackson Hole Land Trust impose yet more restrictions on the property. The trust has described its compliance-check processes as private, and Swann declined to say what they’ve determined.

For some of the Sporting Club projects deemed noncompliant, the special regulations did not come into play — just the standard LDRs. The stockpiled boulders that the county is ordering be moved from the south end of the Sporting Club clashed with at least four sections of the county’s LDRs, according to a Dec. 13 notice of violation (see site 4 on map). In addition to hauling them away the club must also vegetate the site and provide a bond for landscaping work.

An email Swann sent to Teton County Zoning Compliance Officer Chandler Windom the day after the violation was mailed conveys frustration.

“I frankly don’t know what to make of the county’s unwillingness to allow us to store the material onsite in lots 1‐through 6,” Swann said. “This material is extremely expensive and hard to move. I don’t have another storage location or use for it. The trucking cost alone from the quarry was $40,000. Even if we can find a location it can go to while we get Phase 3 approved, we likely would spend $80,000 trucking it back and forth.”

Other projects failed to comply with the special conditions and terms of a just-updated environmental analysis for Snake River Sporting Club property. That was the case with the bridge (see No. 2 on map). Built three years ago across a small riverbraid west of the golf course, the footbridge was part of a horse trail system that club patrons used. But Teton County planners determined that the structure hurt new vegetation and did not qualify for “essential access.” In addition to tearing out the bridge, the club is being ordered to provide a plan for wetland restoration.

Swann told the News&Guide this summer that the bridge was legal because it crossed a man-made diversion, but Teton County officials disagree.

“It’s actually the other end of Trout Creek,” Ramage said, “where it comes back into the Snake River.”

The final judgment is not yet in on the pickleball court pending a revised grading and erosion control permit. But a violation notice sent by interim Teton County Planning Director Susan Johnson said the 30-by-60-foot asphalt structure does not appear to jibe with the setback requirement from the nearest road (see No. 5 in adjacent map). Swann’s contention to the county is that the court should have been OK’d in 2015, but that the planning department erred, according to a memo he sent them. Nevertheless, the county’s violation calls for removing the court and reclaiming the area no later than July 1.

Although the Sporting Club’s 300-foot-long “boulder trench,” near the 15th hole, might pass muster with federal authorities, there’s a real possibility it, too, will have to be torn out because of special conditions that were part of the deal when the Sporting Club was OK’d in 2003. (See No. 3 on the adjacent map.)

“There’s a couple of conditions in particular we’re looking at,” Ramage said. “There’s some very specific language about work they can do around the riverbank.”

Within a “few weeks,” she said, the county will make its final call on the structure, which Swann said he built late in the winter of 2017-18.

The largest project, area-wise, that the Sporting Club is being told to erase are the berms, ponds, raised riverbank and construction debris stockpiled and being ignited at the inlet of Trout Creek, approximately opposite from the Snake’s Pritchard Creek confluence (No. 1 in adjacent map). When the News&Guide toured the site with Swann in August he said the project was focused on flattening a pasture and had nothing to do with the Snake River.

Teton County planners and engineers determined otherwise, labeling the project an active gravel quarry that blocked a riverbraid and violated at least six sections of the LDRs. Snake River Sporting Club’s order is to submit a restoration plan by Feb. 1, and to haul out the lumber, brush, soil and construction waste that’s being stored there by April 1.

If all goes according to plan the site will look like its old self in nine months, when the restoration deadline passes. Vegetation “types, variety and density” must mimic those that were ripped out, the letter says. And the area’s “fluvial geomorphology properties” — like Trout Creek’s channel and the Snake River bank it cuts out of — must “reasonably replicate” what they were before.