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SHERIDAN — For the second time in a little over a year, a request for a conditional use permit by the Sheridan County School District 1 Recreation District to build a community center near the Big Horn Y has been recommended for denial by the County Planning and Zoning Commission.
After nearly an hour of public comment Wednesday, commissioners voted 3-1 to recommend denial of the permit to the Board of County Commissioners, which will consider the request at its meeting Aug. 5. Commissioners Audrey Brown, Bernie Bornong and Mike Schumacher voted against the center, while Commissioner Steve Noecker voted in favor.
Primary reasons given by commissioners who voted against the CUP request included: concerns about the hours of operation (the request did not include proposed hours, but a condition recommended by county staff suggested limiting hours to 6 a.m. to 11 p.m.); concerns about the visual impact of a 7,000-square-foot building on neighbors, many of whom spoke against the center at the meeting; concerns about the fact that the area is zoned rural residential; and traffic and safety concerns regarding the center’s proposed placement near the intersection of Highways 335 and 87 about four miles south of Big Horn.
“To me this really comes down to the rural residential zoning that is there currently,” Bornong said.
He added later that even though the Big Horn Y gas station and convenience store is only 1,000 feet away and is in a designated commercial center, it is separated by the highway from the surrounding residences.
“In the end, I will vote against this because the neighbors were there first in a rural residential, and I think they have that expectation that they bought, built and developed, and have been here with that expectation of rural residential. The school district was there second, and the rec district, so there’s some choice there for them. It’s a close call, a close balance, in my mind,” Bornong said.
Brown said she had no problem with the building, which has been designed to be approximately the same size as the Old Apostolic Lutheran Church that occupied the site until it was destroyed by a fire in August 2012. Her main concern was safety of children who would likely be biking along Highway 335 and 87 to reach the center. Brown also struggled with the fact that not one nearby neighbor spoke in favor of the center.
At the meeting, a petition signed by 40 nearby residents asked that the center be denied.
In his comments, Noecker said he found many of the comments made by concerned citizens to be unhelpful because many of them focused on the financial viability of the recreation district to build and maintain the facility, as well as legal concerns over whether the recreation district can carry a mortgage, which, Noecker said, are not the concern of the planning commission.
Noecker said he was concerned about the traffic and visual impact to surrounding residents, but he ultimately felt those issues could be mitigated with road renovations by the Wyoming Department of Transportation and vegetation for screening. He also noted that the area is designated as public/semi-public on the county’s future land use map and that it once contained a church, which could have been used extensively.
Ten concerned residents spoke against the center, dividing their comments up and focusing on one or two issues each.
Dave Winders called into question a survey taken by the recreation district of Big Horn residents that indicated 78 percent were in favor of more recreation programs in the area. He said the survey did not ask if a community center was wanted and did not mention its location. He also said a letter of intent submitted by the recreation district mentioned that adjacent landowners had been personally contacted about the center but an informal survey of landowners found that none had been called.
SCSD1 Business Manager Jeremy Smith clarified later that people who gave negative responses to the survey were contacted. He also said the survey included a drawing and site plan in the introductory letter that indicated where the center would be located.
Ranchester resident Mark Porden expressed several concerns about the process by which the land was attained by the recreation district and also questioned whether state statute allowed a temporary board like the recreation district board to incur debt. He also questioned the financial viability of the rec district to build and maintain the building.
Smith asserted that nothing illegal had been done in the transfer of ownership of the land from SCSD1 to the recreation district because real estate can be discussed in executive session. Porden said records indicate the purchase of the land by the recreation district was announced in an open meeting a week after it was completed in November 2012.
Smith also said the transfer of insurance money was legal. At the time of the fire, SCSD1 was leasing the old church building and lot as a temporary bus barn during construction of a permanent bus barn in Big Horn. As the lessee, the school district carried the insurance on the building, which was still owned by the Old Apostolic Lutheran Church.
Smith said prior to the fire, discussions were being held on the recreation district purchasing the building to renovate for a recreation center. After the fire, the Old Apostolic Lutheran Church agreed to sell the 2.77-acre property for $300,000, and thus the insurance money — either $600,000 in funds or $900,000 for a building of approximately the same size in the same location — rightfully belonged to the recreation district.
In other business, the planning and zoning commission recommended approval for a four-lot minor subdivision on nine acres adjoining Highway 87 for applicant Jon Diefenderfer. The commission also recommended approval for a private air strip on a 26,000-acre ranch off Passaic Road.
Brown was nominated as chair of the board, while Noecker was elected vice chair and Schumacher was elected clerk.