SHERIDAN — The Sheridan County Planning and Zoning Commission voted four to one to recommend approval of proposed riparian regulations to the Board of County Commissioners at its regularly scheduled meeting Thursday.
The recommendation for approval came with several wording changes in the proposed amendments to Sheridan County’s zoning code to address concerns voiced at the meeting.
Nearly 30 people attended the meeting to participate in the public comment period, which lasted approximately two hours. Sixteen people made remarks, several taking two times at the mic, with 15 speaking against and one speaking for the changes. Many of the concerns expressed centered on private property rights and whether the regulations would actually lead to cleaner water and better habitat for wildlife.
“This regulation has such a narrow view that it’s like throwing a pebble at an elephant,” Story resident Craig Newman said.
The proposed regulations seek to protect riparian areas — land and vegetation within or adjacent to rivers, streams and contiguous wetlands — by limiting development within a 50-foot buffer zone measured from the high water mark on either side of a stream. The variable-width buffer can be enlarged to include additional areas of riparian vegetation further from the stream.
The regulations do include a list of exemptions for agriculture, irrigation, stream restoration efforts and more, as well as allowances to build or expand if a person’s property is more than 50 percent encumbered by riparian vegetation.
While riparian areas represent only 1.5 percent of the total land mass in Wyoming, more than 80 percent of Wyoming’s wildlife uses riparian zones at some point in their life, making it crucial for wildlife protection, County Planner Mark Reid said. Establishing buffer zones and limiting development near stream banks prevents erosion and disturbance of the stream, promoting cleaner water, as well.
Several dissenters said that the proposed regulations targeted the wrong thing, noting that the biggest polluters of area streams were cattle, wildlife and septic systems. Regulations regarding septic systems and floodplains are already in effect, and many expressed the idea that one more regulation will make an already cumbersome system more complex.
Planning Commissioner Mike Schumacher, the sole “no” vote on the matter, said that was the reason he voted against the proposed regulations.
“My main concern here was that we were passing, or forwarding on, a regulation that affects a very minimal portion of the riparian areas. To me, it wasn’t worthy of creating another regulation without having a larger effect,” Schumacher said following the meeting.
Banner resident Vicki Taylor expressed concern about the stakeholder interviews held with consulting firm AECOM at the beginning of the process in August 2011, noting that a majority of the stakeholders interviewed were county and city employees and officials. Taylor also noted that records of the interviews could not be located.
Reid explained that stakeholders are people who have a long-term interest in the well-being of Sheridan County, and in this case were also people with experience in natural resource management and zoning and permitting.
“The purpose of the stakeholder meetings is primarily for the hired consultants to get a quick sense of what’s going on in the community,” Reid said. “It’s something staff is not involved in. We don’t participate; we don’t listen; we don’t take any notes on it. They use that as a technique to get a real quick snapshot of what might be going on in a community and some basic attitudes.”
Reid said the county is working on obtaining documentation from the project manager, who no longer works with the same consulting firm.
Another concern expressed centered on the public input process, with several saying the public workshops and meetings were held at times most people couldn’t attend.
“Maybe we could have done a better job in that regard,” Reid said. “But if you really, honestly wanted to provide input regarding riparian buffers there was certainly an avenue for you to do that whether it was going to a meeting, or written comments or online polling. There were multiple ways to communicate your feelings about it.”
Reid also noted that the only required public input was a public hearing at the Planning and Zoning meeting and County Commission meeting, but the county provided nine avenues for public involvement over two years including workshops, online polling, steering committee meetings and a well-publicized public comment period in spring 2013.
After two hours of public comment, planning commissioners spent another hour discussing the proposed amendments and resident concerns.
Commissioner Steve Noecker, a resident of Story, said he felt the regulations were misunderstood and not as restrictive as people believed. Commissioners then discussed ways to clarify the regulations by adding more exemptions and changing wording. They made sure it was clear that fishing access would not be allowed on private property that had riparian areas; noted that reconstruction of property that is already in a riparian area that is damaged by fire or other natural disaster would be exempt from the regulations; and that normal maintenance, such as yard work, and historical use of riparian areas would be allowed.
One major issue the commissioners said they would discuss with county commissioners was the need to regulate agricultural land use.
Reid said that the zoning regulations adopted by county commissioners in 1985 exempted agricultural lands from zoning restrictions. However, the Wyoming Legislature does allow counties to decide whether agriculture will be controlled with zoning, and the Planning Commission said it would like to see Sheridan County make some effort to require riparian regulations for agricultural lands.
The four commissioners who voted for recommending approval of the proposed regulations generally agreed that it was time to do something to protect riparian areas since several plans in the county dating to the 1970s had included water quality as a primary issue.
“For me, it’s about starting somewhere,” Commissioner Jeremy Smith said. “We need to lay down where we stand on riparian issues. We need to do something, even if it’s the first step in a long journey.”
The Board of County Commissioners will consider the proposed riparian regulations at its meeting Aug. 20.