SHERIDAN — The proposed Big Horn Community Center to be located about four miles north of Big Horn has been denied again, and again, by county officials whose votes are as split on the matter as comments for and against the center from area residents.
The fourth denial for the center in a little over a year came Tuesday in a 2-3 vote by county commissioners. Commissioners Terry Cram and Bob Rolston voted to approve a conditional use permit for the center, while Commissioners Steve Maier, Tom Ringley and Mike Nickel voted against the permit.
Nickel said he couldn’t overlook the distress of nearby residents while Maier and Ringley both said they appreciated the need for the center but that it didn’t fit the surrounding land uses and was an inappropriate function in that location. Maier said he was hesitant to open up a rural residential area to commercial use.
The Big Horn Y gas station and convenience center is located in the same area but was grandfathered into the zoning.
Rolston said he voted for the center last April, even when it included a 21,000-square-foot tennis facility, and that he would not change his vote. The revised proposal was for a 7,000-square-foot recreation center and outdoor play field and did not include the tennis facility.
Cram said the Old Apostolic Lutheran Church that used to be located on the site prior to burning down in August 2012 was about the same size as the proposed center. While some opponents have questioned the legality of the Sheridan County School District 1 Recreation District owning land, since it is a temporary board, Cram said County Attorney Matt Redle said there was nothing illegal to worry about in approving the permit.
Cram said his ultimate test for something like the recreation center is if he would mind having it in his own back yard. This time his answer to that question was “no” because he saw its benefits for area residents.
Proposed uses included a fitness center, meeting spaces, activity areas for general use and before- and after-school programs, space to run a preschool since space is limited in the Big Horn schools, a field for sports practice and outdoor play, and more amenities that would have been added with community input.
Nearly 25 community members addressed commissioners during approximately two hours of public comment on the proposed center, splitting almost down the middle with 13 speaking in favor and 11 speaking against.
Outcry has mostly come from adjacent neighbors to the proposed site, which is located near the intersection of Highways 335 and 87 north of Big Horn. They say the center, scheduled to be open from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m., would have increased traffic and safety concerns, elevated noise levels with an outdoor sports field and disrupted the rural feel of the area that led many residents to settle there.
Those against the center submitted two petitions with a total of more than 70 signatures stating opposition to the facility. One resident said every adjacent neighbor had signed the petition; however, Wendy Smith, who lives within sight of the proposed location, did not sign the petition, so it is unclear what parameters were used to delineate “adjacent” or “nearby.”
A few residents from the Tongue River valley also spoke against the center, questioning its financial viability, whether it was discussed openly enough in its beginning stages and motives for placing the center four miles away from Big Horn. SCSD1 uses the site as a bus stop. Many students who use the bus stop are from SCSD2 territory but attend Big Horn Schools, providing valuable income for SCSD1.
Support has been expressed by residents of Big Horn, young and old alike, who said the center would offer Big Horn residents needed meeting space, recreation opportunities and before and after-school programs for youth, as well as additional field space for sports practice.
Following requests by commissioners after last year’s denial, SCSD1 Recreation District board members said they reached out to nearby neighbors, held public meetings about the center and sent out surveys to determine public support for increased recreation opportunities.
Of 1,300 surveys mailed out, 229 were returned, with 78 percent of respondents saying they wanted enhanced recreational opportunities in the area. Approximately 51 people living within one mile of the proposed site responded, with approximately 2/3 against and 1/3 in favor, according to Kelly Pascal-Gould, who lives in the area and put out the survey.
The SCSD1 Recreation District must now decide what to do with the land it purchased from the church and the insurance money it received following the fire that destroyed the church building. SCSD1 Business Manager Jeremy Smith said building the center in Big Horn is not an option because there are no sewer lines and the land recently purchased near Big Horn High School must be used to build a third school building in the future.