Wyoming is suing one of its own counties following a dispute over land use in the state’s wealthiest region.
The Wyoming Board of Land Commissioners on Dec. 21 filed a lawsuit against the Teton County Commission, asking the Laramie County District Court to block the county from enforcing land-use restrictions against businesses that have won permits to develop on state trust lands.
The state board also is asking the court to declare that state entities are immune from falling under the county’s land-use regulations.
A judgment on the case will have implications for all of Wyoming, the lawsuit complaint says, because it could limit the ability of counties to govern how the state uses its trust lands to fund schools – which is the lands’ primary purpose.
Teton County Commission Vice-Chair Luther Propst on Friday told Cowboy State Daily he is perplexed by the lawsuit, because the state-issued permits for the land’s developers include requirements for permittees to comply with local regulations.
“So, the county commission is just following the language of the permit,” he said.
Propst clarified that he could comment on his own behalf, but not the whole commission since it has not yet reviewed the lawsuit.
Wyoming has about 3.5 million surface acres and 3.9 million mineral acres of trust lands set aside for government revenues. The bulk of those lands – about 86% – are designated to fund public schools in all 23 counties, the complaint states.
The portion in dispute is south of skiing community Teton Village, according to mapping service randymajors.org.
Wyoming’s Board of Land Commissioners on June 2 issued permits to two businesses to use parts of the land for up to five years.
Wilson Investments LLC received a permit for three tracts of land consisting of about 9.7 acres to establish a storage unit facility and a landscape construction yard.
Basecamp Hospitality LLC was permitted to use 4.76 acres for camping areas, the complaint says.
Teton County’s Planning and Building Services Department on Nov. 28 challenged the land use by sending notices of abatement to both businesses and the state board, the complaint says.
The notices claimed that the developments were in violation of seven land use or development regulations.
The complaint doesn’t specify which regulations the county cited in the notices.
Propst said he could not remember which seven regulations were listed. He did, however, allude to requirements for safe electrical wiring processes.
“As a county commissioner, I’m particularly sensitive (about wiring regulations),” said Propst, adding that he’s concerned about county firefighters having to respond to structure fires.
The state countered in its complaint, saying its lands administrators and other agencies “have continually worked with Basecamp and Wilson Investments to ensure compliance with health and safety standards.”
The county’s notices had warned the state board and businesses that failure to comply within 10 days would prompt a hearing before the commissioners and a possible civil lawsuit, according to the complaint.
The Wyoming Attorney General’s Office objected to the notices Dec. 20, saying the state has sovereign immunity. Its lawsuit was filed the next day.
Sovereign immunity should protect the state’s permittees on state trust lands from the county’s zoning enforcement, the state argues in its complaint.
Sovereign immunity is a legal concept protecting sovereign governments from being sued without their consent. Governments can waive their sovereign immunity when entering into contracts, or in certain areas of their laws.
The state’s lawsuit argues that Wyoming laws don’t waive the state’s immunity from Teton County’s land-use regulations. If the county can regulate the state’s actions, Wyoming will “suffer irreparable harm,” the complaint argues.
‘Probably Legally Obligated’
Propst told Cowboy State Daily the Teton County Commission never intended to challenge the state’s sovereignty.
“We’re not contesting sovereign immunity, we’re just trying to make sure these applicants comply with the terms of the permit,” he said, referencing a state statute that allows counties to enforce land regulations to protect the public’s health and safety.
Propst said the commission sent the abatement notices to ensure that the permittees comply with local and state regulations both.
“I think we’re probably legally obligated to do so,” Propst said, adding that he hopes the county and state can use this lawsuit to achieve greater collaboration in the future.
Propst said the commission also didn’t intend to choke off state funding for public schools.
“We’re very supportive of schools in the state,” he said.