Conserving Treasured Landscapes for Prosperity in Posterity: Sheridan County, Wyoming

Posted on: August 28th, 2012 by Kathy Nothstine

This case study was researched and written by Parrish Bergquist, NADO Research Foundation Graduate Fellow.

In Sheridan County, Wyoming, residents with widely divergent political views can usually agree on their profound affection for the land. Conservatives and liberals alike appreciate the outdoors, as shown by their enthusiasm for hunting, fishing, ranching, farming, outdoor sports, scenic vistas, or habitat conservation. Residents’ love of their landscape has translated into a conservation ethic that guides the community’s land use policies ( http://www NULL.sonoraninstitute NULL.org/homegrownsheridan#sheridanstory). Most recently, the County’s comprehensive plan—adopted in 2008—includes a number of policy strategies that the County hopes will allow it to grow without destroying its precious natural resources. According to the Sonoran Institute (http://www NULL.sonoraninstitute NULL.org/)’s John Heyneman, “comprehensive plans are not new—every community has them—but many don’t have teeth, and Sheridan County is unusual in putting teeth into its plan’s implementation.”

Sheridan County’s adoption in 2010 of a conservation design subdivision (CDS) proces (http://www NULL.sheridancounty NULL.com/info/assets/pw-plan/CDS NULL.pdf)s represents a significant step towards implementing its comprehensive plan. The CDS process incentivizes conservation of natural features, and development of the parts of a property best suited for building. To qualify for CDS designation, a developer must set aside at least 70% of a subdivision as preserved open space. In return, the developer may build more homes per acre than allowed under the County’s normal subdivision requirements. Additionally, developers receive density bonuses for preserving certain types of natural features like streams, connected wildlife habitat, or prime farmland.

Due to the housing crunch, the County has not seen much housing development since adopting the resolution. Still, the County was processing its first CDS at the time of writing, and Sheridan County Planner Mark Reid has noticed significant interest from developers in building conservation design subdivisions: “A lot of developers are saying, ‘Why would you do this any other way?’ They can make more money because they’re selling a product that’s sensitive to the features that people move to this part of the world for.” The density bonuses also allow developers to build and sell more units.

Downtown Sheridan (source: flickr user jonathanpercy).

Reid looks to Laramie County to support his optimism that developers will use the CDS process, noting that after Laramie adopted a similar resolution (http://www NULL.laramiecounty NULL.com/_departments/_planning/_pdfs/2011/June%202011/Laramie%20County%20Land%20Use%20Regulations%2006082011 NULL.pdf), many developers used the CDS process. Laramie County planner Abby Yenco confirms that open space design subdivisions (as Laramie County calls them) have been built, but adds that her county has changed the process to make it less formulaic and more user-friendly. Laramie County allows for density bonuses on a case-by-case basis, based on sustainability elements ranging from open space conservation to affordable housing. Conversely, Sheridan County’s resolution specifies a formula for calculating density bonuses based on land use zone and project elements.

To protect the Big Horn Mountains, the County rezoned areas in the foothills from residential to agricultural uses–allowing one unit per 80 acres (source: flickr user jacdupree).

Sheridan County also updated its zoning map, reducing allowed density on most of the land within the county’s boundaries. Rezoning took two forms. The original zoning map from 1985 had designated large areas along the Big Horn Mountain foothills as residential, and the County rezoned these areas as agricultural. Additionally, the original zoning code allowed one unit per 35 acres in agricultural areas, and the County reduced allowed density in agricultural zones to one unit per 80 acres. Reid estimates that these changes affected about 95% of the county’s private and state land. About 10,000 acres were down-zoned to agricultural, while density was reduced on the county’s approximately 1,766 square miles of non-federal agricultural land.

When considering the fiscal and economic implications of these changes, Reid says that he has heard two arguments. Some claim that reducing development densities reduces property values, while others argue that open space preservation has raised property values. Local governments in Wyoming derive a large portion of their funding from revenues derived from mineral extraction activities, perhaps easing possible negative revenue impacts. Still, Reid reports that these policy changes stem from the high value that residents and commissioners place on landscape conservation.  Of course, conservation makes financial sense in a community where outdoor tourism helps drive the local economy.

In 2010, Sheridan County adopted a conservation design subdivision (CDS) process. Within the conservation development area–designated in green–developers of parcels of 70 acres in the county’s agricultural district, or 10 acres in the rural residential and urban residential districts (outside the urban services area outlined in pink) may apply for density bonuses (source: Sheridan County Comprehensive Plan).

Reid also stresses the importance of good planning, to gain public buy-in and lend support to policymakers’ decisions. Both rezoning and the CDS process emerged as implementation tools when the County revised its comprehensive plan in 2008. When the time came to pass the CDS resolution, Reid recalls, “Those who participated in the planning process gave unanimous support for the County doing something along these lines.” Additionally, Reid says, “If things get challenged legally, courts commonly uphold policies that are in comprehensive plans. The Plan also gives elected officials trying to promote a new policy, something to hang their hat on to support their actions.”

The comprehensive plan (http://www NULL.sheridancounty NULL.com/info/pw-plan/complan NULL.php) includes 52 strategies that Sheridan County hopes to implement as it moves into the future. Currently, the County is working on a project to map and manage the County’s riparian zones, since they provide important habitat, flood control, sedimentation buffering, and water filtration services. It is also developing standards for development in wildlife habitat, and the commissioners are exploring additional rezonings. Other entities like The Nature Conservancy, the conservation district, the Sheridan Community Land Trust, and the Wyoming Game and Fish Department have been important partners in implementing conservation strategies. These and other entities may also pick up parts of the comprehensive plan for implementation, which will help the County deal with a contracting budget. As the economy recovers and development pressures rise, Sheridan County is positioning itself to promote quality growth while conserving the landscapes, habitats, and farmland that its residents treasure.

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This is part of the NADO Research Foundation’s Vibrant Rural Communities series of case studies, which describes how rural regions and small towns across the country are growing local and regional economies and creating stronger communities. This series shows how communities can leverage a wide range of tools and resources to build on their assets, protect their resources, and make strategic investments that offer long-term benefits.

This project is based in part upon work supported by the Federal Highway Administration under Agreement No. DTFH61-10-C-00047. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of FHWA or the NADO Research Foundation.

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