Berm house under attack
Conservancy catches heat for its approval of landscaping on protected meadow.
By Kevin Huelsmann, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
August 29, 2012
Nature Conservancy officials on Tuesday confirmed that they are reviewing whether they mistakenly approved plans for 14-foot-tall berm and new wetlands on an iconic conservation property along Highway 22.
Wyoming State Director Andrea Erickson-Quiroz said the organization hired an independent law firm to help address some of the concerns being raised by members of the families who placed an easement on the meadow below the Skyline Ranch Subdivision more than 30 years ago.
Conservancy staff from outside the Wyoming chapter also are reviewing the approval, Erickson-Quiroz said.
“If we have, in fact, made a mistake, we’re going to own it,” she said.
An increasing number of residents are pressing the conservancy to halt the ongoing construction project at the property and block future plans to create ponds on the southern portion of the meadow.
They say the project clearly violates the terms of the easement — the first one created in Wyoming — and could erode confidence in one of the most effective conservation tools in the valley.
“Landowners made great sacrifices in many cases to protect that land,” said Jean Hocker, a founding director of the Jackson Hole Land Trust who served as the president of the Land Trust Alliance for 15 years. “To see the conservation easement, that is frankly the foundation of the protection corridor, destroyed and converted to a different purpose undermines the whole program. What is happening on the land itself is heartbreaking.”
The project has raised a host of questions about the protections afforded to the property by the easement, the review process used by the conservancy and county land-use regulations that pertain to scenic lands.
Plans for a new home at the property also have attracted a lot of attention and have spurred a lawsuit against the county by the property owner, Henderson, Nev., resident Fintan Ryan.
While Ryan battles county officials in court about how they define a basement and, ultimately, how big of a home he can build, residents are trying to find ways to block the major landscaping project that has been going on all summer.
Conservancy staff approved the project last year. They said the berms and wetlands complied with the intentions of the easement and could help improve the property.
“Construction of the ponds and wetlands will improve water quality by filtering and cleaning irrigation runoff flowing onto the property and provide waterfowl and shorebird habitat that is aesthetically preferable to the existing Pratt Ditch,” Land Conservation Specialist Randy Craft said in an Oct. 11, 2011 letter to Ryan and his landscape architect Jim Verdone.
“Aesthetics will also be improved by the berms, which will provide a visual barrier between the buildings and highway. Additionally, the berms will be seeded with native grasses, enhancing the ecological integrity of the property.”
Initial plans submitted to Teton County show more wetlands on the southern portion of the property, closer to the Skyline Ranch subdivision.
Conservancy officials are reviewing those plans, which likely will include installation of head gates on the property to create more wetlands, Erickson-Quiroz said.
The development is expected to create 4.28 acres of new wetlands, according to a natural resources report prepared by Alder Environmental in October 2011.
The report estimates that 3.78 acres of existing wetlands will be lost due to the construction.
In a letter he submitted as part of his grading application, Ryan said he is working with members of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on the project. The agency wrote his restoration plan and is providing technical and financial assistance, he said.
“Because our plan involves placing earthfill into man-made drainage ditches that are functioning as wetlands, we are presenting a plan to mitigate for these losses by restoring hydrology that will more closely resemble historic hydrology on the land that is non-wetland or irrigation-induced wetland,” Ryan said in a March 1 letter to county planners.
Erickson-Quiroz said a team of staffers from the conservancy led by a biologist carefully reviewed the plans for the site against all of the terms laid out in the easement.
“It is a process of using the tool you have in front of you and the best information about what the intent was and looking at the retained rights and making a judgment,” she said.
Some of people who granted the easement disagree. The easement clearly grants the right for a residence, but, they argue, there is nothing that permits large berms on the property.
In an Aug. 22 email to county commissioners, Pete Jorgensen wrote, “My family and the John/Georgie Morgan and Harry Barker families felt we were quite specific in the conservation easement that the property would be permanently preserved as an example of historic agricultural uses of the property before the easement was granted.
“From the materials I have been presented with,” he wrote, “it shows new ponds extending southerly to nearly the Skyline Ranch Subdivision. Together with the lands within Area 3 being significantly disturbed and altered for the proposed residence, the proposed expansion to the south will result in more than 200 acres being taken out of historic agricultural use and eliminating the visual view of that historic use.”
Hank Phibbs, who authored the easement, said the document could not anticipate every possible use for the site. That’s why there is a provision that calls on the conservancy to review any uses not explicitly called out in the easement against the grantors’ intentions, Phibbs said.
“The construction of massive landscape berms that change the fundamental nature of the agricultural landscape they intended to preserve is extremely disappointing,” he said.
The easement states that it is supposed “to preserve and maintain the ecosystems of the property and to insure the continuous harmony of land uses.
“It is the intent of this easement to prevent any practice on the land which by its nature or in the manner of its conduct endangers the preservation of the ecosystem or aesthetic features of the property,” the document reads.
It also says the easement was created to preserve the natural ecosystems, aesthetic features and historic use of the property.
Members of the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance said the project exploited a loophole in county regulations to bypass one level of review.
Alliance Executive Director Trevor Stevenson said there’s a major gap in the way county officials regulate scenic lands. Owners of property that falls within the county’s scenic resource overlay typically have to abide by a special set of rules, unless the land has a conservation easement. Those properties are exempt.
“It skipped right by commissioners,” Stevenson said of Ryan’s property.
He is urging county commissioners to address the loophole soon to prevent other landowners from taking advantage of it. Stevenson said commissioners could approve several small changes to the regulation right now and revisit the issue later.
Stevenson also raised concerns that the new wetlands represent a major change to wildlife habitat on the property. The dramatic shift in landscape could have a serious effect on wildlife, he said.
“What they’ve done is a wholesale transformation of the wetlands,” Stevenson said.