CHEYENNE – As Cheyenne continues to grow, government officials said they’re making the most fair decisions possible when it comes to development.
But the most recent subdivision approved by the Laramie County commissioners at the end of September generated large community pushback. Many residents said they feel as though their voice is not taken into consideration when a new development is introduced.
The commissioners unanimously approved a zone change, permit and plat for the second filing of the Bell Pasture subdivision, even with a packed room full of concerned community members. More than 100 homes will be built over the next five years near the intersection of Interstate 25 and Horse Creek Road.
It is not the first development residents have fought to have reconsidered, and it won’t be the last. The difference is that it has brought attention to the decision-making process for commissioners and council members when it comes to expansion in Laramie County.
Residents said they want to know how government officials approve such large developments when there are vital resources such as land and water at risk.
Some commissioners said that, at this time, they have no choice but to trust the system.
“We have the rules that we’ve set up to dictate how a subdivision can come to be,” said County Commissioner Gunnar Malm. “And if an applicant meets those rules, I don’t feel we have any other alternative but to approve their application.”
Currently, developers go through a long process of meeting with state and local government agencies to make sure they are adhering to land-use regulations and planning requirements before they even go before the county commissioners. Once the proper documentation is gathered, applicants have to present their development to the Laramie County Planning Commission.
The Planning Commission can vote against recommending the development, but it will still move before the county commissioners with a record of the disapproval. This gives developers a chance to readjust their plan or address concerns before the next meeting.
Once it makes it into the county commissioners’ hands, the decision is based on whether the applicant has met the criteria. For almost all developments, the paperwork will be in order, and the criteria will be met.
This is the point at which Malm and his fellow commissioners said a decision based on anything except the approval from government agencies would be arbitrary and cause for litigation.
“That’s not a case you can win in court,” he said.
And this is where residents said they begin to feel unheard.
In the case of the Bell Pasture subdivision, residents specifically asked the county commissioners to consider asking the applicant to redraw the property lines into larger acreage plots to conserve water resources. They asked for lots to be drawn up at 10 acres, instead of five.
Outside of the city limits, wells have to be handled individually, and many members of the community have struggled to pay for redrilling their wells over time.
Commissioner Troy Thompson said this may not be a matter of the aquifer’s levels, though.
“I have yet to see a direct, proven correlation between this development of property and a well going dry over here,” he said.
Thompson said there are other factors to consider, such as when the well was drilled and how deep into the aquifer it went.
But the residents who testified against the development were not only upset homeowners with dry wells; some were engineers and longtime scientists in the environmental science field. They shared their ever-increasing concern for the possible overuse of finite resources, such as water, land and wildlife.
But more than that, they said the approval of the development would not be based on the standards the commissioners said they adhere to. Kyle Wendtland and Terrance Booth both brought to the attention of the commissioners key issues with the interpretation of the AMEC memo and the three-dimensional groundwater model, which is used as a predictive tool for land-use regulations.
The AMEC memo was received by the State Engineer’s Office in 2014, and it states developments should be at a minimum five acres, but stressed lots needed to be larger to compensate for other factors. It also reiterates the calculation is not conservative, and it “may be prudent to increase the calculated minimum lot size by some amount.”
Officials took their time to consider the memo and decided a minimum parcel size should be twice the calculated five acres. But Booth said this was contradicted by the law, which states the State Engineer’s Office will approve a permit for a well in the conservation area for each 10-acre parcel, or a legally subdivided plat size.
This allowed the Bell Pasture subdivision to be approved under land-use regulations. County commissioners have the option to base their decision on a 10-acre parcel or the legally subdivided plat, which is often a smaller size.
The memo and land-use regulations are also based off of the three-dimension groundwater model, which Wendtland said is out of date. He believes the commissioners, although they are within their bounds to approve developments, are making decisions based off of expired science.
Since its creation in 2014, the model is supposed to be updated with new data based on the aquifer and recent developments every three years. It was updated in 2017 and due for another calibration in 2020. As a result of the pandemic, new inputs were never added to the model, so it has gone four years without an update.
This means there is a possibility the calculations for the necessary acreage on developments are outdated.
But county commissioners said their decisions still must be based on the most recent documents brought forward, regardless of whether they are from 2017.
“I think we need to use the best science and best data available to us,” Commissioner Thompson said. “And that AMEC memo is the best we have.”
Malm also agreed with Thompson, and said he has confidence that the state agencies are continually reviewing the science and will notify them if they are not interpreting the memo correctly. He said it is not his job to second guess the State Engineer’s Office because he has no experience in the environmental science field.
“I think that it is not responsible of me to solely rule on things based on my own emotion, because that’s unfair to residents,” he said. “But if I base my decision upon facts, science and rules that we’ve set out, then I’m doing my job.”
Commissioners Malm and Thompson said developments will still be approved in the future, as long as they are within the bounds of the current standards. With housing shortages, unaffordable rent and an increasing population, they said expansion is inevitable and necessary.
“I think it’s a great testament to our community that people want to move and live here,” Malm said. “And it’s a testament to those residents that people want to enjoy the same style of life that they have.”
He said this does not mean he doesn’t want residents to feel comfortable sharing their concerns to make sure that Cheyenne is growing appropriately, safely and in a way that protects the health of the community. It just has to be in a different capacity.
Both commissioners said community members must help develop the land-use regulations and contact government officials in advance. And later this month, there will be public hearings that will allow residents to propose changes and discuss development issues.
Every year, the land-use regulations are updated, and improvements are made, but in the case of the minimum lot size, the order has to come from the State Engineer’s Office, along with the scientific data to back it up. Even if residents were to ask for lot sizes to be at a higher acreage, the memo and the water model must be updated by the state agency.
No commissioners on record have spoken with the State Engineer’s Office about these concerns from residents. And officials have not responded to any inquiries by the Wyoming Tribune Eagle on development in Cheyenne, the outdated model or the interpretation of the memo.