Planning meets doubt Landowners question initiative in Platte, Goshen counties
An initiative that began in Platte and Goshen counties in March 2010 with a purpose of ensuring a high quality of life for residents for years to come now has some of those residents feeling that same quality of life has been threatened.
The High Plains Initiative began under the leadership of local economic development leaders in the two counties, and has support from Building the Wyoming We Want (BW3).
According to HPI information, the program contracted with Envision Utah to review data for both counties, work with the local steering committee and develop estimated growth trends for the two-county region. The baseline analysis provides a picture of the area’s projected fate if current development trends continue, and, according to the analysis, the 2040 projection for the region estimates a 24 percent growth in population and a 25 percent job growth.
Steering committee member and Lingle private property owner Cheri Steinmetz says she began to question the motives behind HPI when the public began to ask her if the initiative was related to SmartGrowth, an entity of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that “helps create national, regional and local coalitions to support intelligent and sustainable growth,” according to the SmartGrowth website.
“I had never heard of SmartGrowth, and didn’t know what it was, but when I started looking into it all the premises were similar and the stakeholder councils were similar,” says Steinmetz of comparisons between HPI and SmartGrowth.
Steinmetz takes the connection farther, saying SmartGrowth has connections through EPA to the United Nations’ Agenda 21.
“This is the other prong of the Wild Lands Initiative, and the prong that’s meant to bring private property under control,” she states, continuing, “They have to do it this way, through envisioning processes and stakeholder councils, because our private property rights are so strong they have to get us to give them up to accomplish their agenda.”
“My argument is that we do not have the right to take out a map and plan over someone else’s private property,” she says. “Constitutionally, that right doesn’t exist, and that’s what’s being done.”
Through a series of meetings in the last year, HPI has sought to gain public input about where the counties’ citizens would like to see their region in 30 years. Steinmetz casts doubt on the survey techniques, saying members of the steering committee were allowed to participate more than once, and anyone who could type in the area’s zip code could take the survey online. She also says that high school students took the survey as part of a required classroom assignment.
Steinmetz is also concerned about the involvement of Envision Utah, which she says had a hand in zoning the state of Utah and commoditizing its water.
“These are my concerns, because they use their restrictive zoning to get the water off the land,” notes Steinmetz. “Private property rights are the best way of protecting our land and water, and if you zone the guy next to you, you’ve regulated yourself.”
“Any time some kind of document is formulated that may influence policy, there’s a risk of having it interpreted one way or another,” says Platte County Commissioner Steve Shockley of the planning. “As commissioners, we view this as a tool to look and see what people are interested in, and what they want things to look like in the future. Everybody does planning to some extent, and it’s not a bad thing.”
Platte County Commissioner Terry Stevenson is on the executive committee of the High Plains Initiative, and he says that, even if HPI was trying to overturn private property rights, it wouldn’t happen.
“One of the processes the Initiative goes through is to determine the values of local people, and why they like living where they live, and there’s a list that’s been created through their surveying, including things like small towns, low crime rates and low taxes. One of the things that’s been identified as a value from the beginning is property rights,” says Stevenson. “The idea of the Initiative is to look forward 30 years and make sure we maintain the values 30 years from now that we have right now, and if property rights are one of those values, they’ve got to be maintained, according to the parameters of the Initiative.”
“The main thing I saw, through going to the public meetings and exercises, was a core value of private property rights,” says Shockley. “They are near and dear to everybody in the state as a whole, and if this report comes out in the end with a list of the values of people in southeast Wyoming, and if property rights aren’t near the top of the list, it’s not an accurate reflection of how the people in this area feel.”
Stevenson says that what the HPI process does is set up different scenarios that are variations on the question: “If we did everything exactly as we are now and move forward, what would things look like 30 years from now?”
“The variations ask: ‘What if we are more restrictive on subdivisions, or less restrictive, what impact would that have on the way things would look?’ What we have been doing most recently is looking at the different scenarios that would come out of differences from where we are now,” explains Stevenson.
He continues that, eventually, the HPI committee will end up with a set of recommendations that will be provided to local governments – in this case those of Platte and Goshen counties and the 10 towns within.
“The recommendations will be handed over to the local government officials, and that’s the end of the project,” says Stevenson. “They have absolutely no authority to do any implementation of any kind. Any kind of implementation would go through the existing processes of local governments. For example, planning and zoning questions or recommended changes would have to go through the exact same process as any planning or zoning change under state statute, and it’s been that way since 1976.”
He says for a county that includes 45-day notice, public hearings and public input to the commissioners about whether or not the issue in question should be implemented.
In mid-March the county commissioners held a meeting that drew many landowners opposed to HPI and its methods. Sherri Cullen of Wheatland is one of those who attend the commissioner meeting.
“The overall concern is that the Initiative is something that could easily come in conflict with private property rights,” says Cullen. “We object to the way they conducted their meetings, with a little map where people could say whose place needs to stay open space, and whose needs to be a housing development.”
“As landowners, we don’t feel this planning process is in our best interest,” continues Cullen. “We are a group of people who feel like what we want will come about through marketing and the private enterprise system. We don’t see the High Plains Initiative as a grassroots system at all, and that’s one of their biggest claims. Something we have to be aware of is people who are coming in and telling us what we need to do with our property.”
“The simple statement is that anything still has to go through the county commissioners, and they must take specific action on any change before anything can take place,” says Stevenson, who expects an HPI recommendation to come before the county commissioners in the next two or three months. “The planning process is nearing the end,” he adds.
“Any document could be taken apart, with bits and pieces used for an agenda,” says Shockley. “In my view, I think it’s been made clear to the High Plains Initiative group that private property rights are very valuable to the people around here, and I imagine the final document would have to include those.”