SHERIDAN — After more than four years of public workshops, open houses and steering committee meetings, the Sheridan County Public Works Department has released proposed amendments to zoning regulations regarding management of riparian areas in the county. Riparian areas include all lands within and adjacent to rivers, streams and contiguous wetlands where vegetation is affected by the temporary, seasonal or permanent presence of water.
The Riparian Management Steering Committee has been working on the proposed zoning regulations — which would establish a minimum riparian buffer zone of 50 feet — for several years. Up to this point, public input on riparian buffer zones has ranged from concern about losing property rights to concern that the proposed regulations are not strict enough, according to Mark Reid, county planner.
The Riparian Steering Committee has invited public comments on the proposed amendments. Comments will be accepted through April 8 and will be considered as the committee makes final revisions to the regulations before they are considered by the Sheridan County Commissioners.
“It’s a balancing act,” Reid said. “That’s the commissioner’s major task is to balance the property rights against the need of the broader public.”
The proposed riparian buffer zone is rooted in the county’s Comprehensive Plan that was adopted in December 2008, Reid said. Preserving wildlife habitat and riparian areas was one of five priority actions listed in the plan.
The County Commissioners hired consulting firm AECOM for $60,000 to design a public participation process for developing riparian management plans. The county conducted meetings with stakeholders and formed the Riparian Steering Committee to come up with a list of issues and concerns that needed to be addressed.
In September 2011, AECOM held a public workshop at South Park to engage public input and conduct polls. In January 2012, another workshop was held to present results from previous polling efforts and gather additional input. In fall 2012, AECOM offered an open house at the library to present five options for riparian management — including fixed-width buffers, variable-width buffers, multi-zoned buffers, amending existing buffers or no regulatory buffers.
The committee and public preferred the variable-width buffer, Reid said, as long as modifications were made to reduce the buffer zone from 100 feet to 50 feet. The steering committee also added an extensive list of exemptions, according to Reid.
“Water quality has always been a very important value for the community,” steering committee member Roger Wilson said. “The public is a huge part of the process. The desire is to have a good direction for the management and protection of the riparian areas for the public, for the community, so we have a result that the community wants in the future.”
Riparian vegetation and habitat is limited in arid western climates. Riparian zones represent 1 to 2 percent of the land area in Wyoming, but a majority of animal species depend on riparian areas at one or more points in their life cycle, Reid said.
The current plan for riparian areas, as demonstrated in the proposed amendments, aims to protect water and habitat quality in rivers, streams and wetlands by establishing a riparian buffer zone in which no new residential, commercial or industrial structures, septic systems or other impermeable surfaces will be allowed unless exempted in the regulations or by variance.
With public input and additional research, the committee decided to adopt a variable-width buffer that would establish a minimum requirement and allow the county to enlarge site-specific sections of the buffer zone as needed to protect riparian vegetation, erodible soils and steep slope areas.
At minimum, the riparian buffer zone will extend 50 feet from the ordinary high water mark or defined stream bank. The county may enlarge the buffer zone 10 to 50 feet to account for steep slopes and may enlarge as needed to accommodate additional riparian vegetation.
Wilson said research has shown that an average of 50 feet for the buffer zone is adequate to protect water quality. This figure is less than the originally proposed 100-foot buffer zone.
Throughout the process of developing the proposed riparian buffer zone, Reid and members of the steering committee have received positive and negative feedback.
“Most of the concerns have centered around the perceived loss of property rights and the fact that somebody may be subject to something that they weren’t subject to before,” Reid said.
Some people have said the towns of Story, Big Horn, Ranchester and Dayton would not exist in their current form, with dwellings right on streams and rivers, if such regulations had been in effect. While there is not much current demand to build in riparian areas, Reid said, there has been in the past and may be in the future.
“It’s natural for people to want to be in pretty places,” Wilson said. “We’re not advocating no building. It’s not the intent not to have a building along the streams. It’s just to protect that strip along the stream to protect the water and the major habitat.”
One major concern, Reid said, has centered around the $475 variance fee that will be required if someone wants to build in a riparian buffer in such a manner that is not listed in the exemptions.
Addressing this concern, Reid urged people to remember the difference between exemptions and variances.
The proposed regulations include an extensive list of exemptions that allow for agricultural activity, irrigation, recreational facilities, trails, stream restoration, mobile homes in existing mobile home parks, tree removal to provide defensible space against fires, limited building additions and limited new development.
In existing legal parcels where 50 percent or more of the total area is encumbered by the riparian buffer, development up to 5,000 square feet — the approximate size of two three-bedroom houses side by side — will be allowed in the riparian buffer zone. Building additions not exceeding 50 percent of the original floor area that are situated no closer to the stream than the existing building will also be allowed.
“If we can draft the plan to avoid a variance, we will do so,” Reid said.
Several people have expressed concern about handicap accessible facilities by the river. Reid said those would likely fall under the exemption for pathways and trails and that it will be addressed if it doesn’t.
The fire district raised concerns about the need to remove or thin trees and vegetation around homes to provide defensible space to protect lives and property from fire danger. The steering committee added provisions for defensible space to the exemptions.
Another major concern, Reid said, involved the process the county would use to enlarge riparian buffer zones. He said staff will use field observation and maps of riparian areas to determine if a buffer zone needs to be larger. Landowner input will be considered, as well.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, some people have expressed frustration that the regulations are too lenient with too many exemptions, Reid said.
“Once we’ve started hearing that maybe that means we’ve found a middle ground on this,” Reid said.