SHERIDAN — The Sheridan County Planning and Zoning Commission voted against the Big Horn Community Center and tennis facility proposed at its regular meeting Thursday evening. The decision came on the heels of more than 90 minutes of staff presentation, public comment and discussion amongst planning commission members.
Nearly 20 community members spoke at the meeting, splitting almost evenly on those for and those against the center.
Four members of the planning commission voted against the center, saying they will not recommend approval for the center to the Board of County Commissioners. Planning commission member Jeremy Smith, business manager for Sheridan County School District No. 1 and proponent of the center, recused himself from the discussions and vote due to his conflict of interest.
The commissioners will consider the conditional use permit application submitted by Sheridan County School District No. 1 Recreation District at its meeting May 7.
The community center and racket facility is proposed to be built near the “Big Horn Y” at the intersection of Highways 335 and 87 about four miles north of Big Horn. All the surrounding property is zoned rural residential, which allows low-density residential uses. According to County Planner Mark Reid, a conditional use permit had to be submitted for approval to build the community center since it fell outside the standard allowances in the surrounding zoning.
“Community centers and recreational facilities such as the tennis building do not readily fit with anything in the county zoning districts,” Reid said in his introduction of the project.
The proposed site includes a 7,000-square-foot building with a height of 24 feet and a 21,250-square-foot racket facility with a height of 45 feet. The community center, which is estimated to cost $950,000, would include an exercise room, a single-room preschool, teaching kitchen, classrooms, recreation district offices and multi-use areas for activities.
The racket facility would include two tennis courts, two pickleball courts and a locker room area with restrooms. A 44-space gravel parking area is also proposed.
The community center has been the topic of debate since community residents were made aware of plans for the center at a meeting January 9. Many of those with concerns about the center have been Tongue River Valley residents who were worried about the process by which the land was obtained and the seeming lack of finances to maintain community center activities.
On Aug. 9, a building owned by the Apostolic Lutheran Church and rented by SCSD 1 as a temporary bus barn and bus stop location, burned due to an electrical fire started by wiring in a school district vehicle.
Because SCSD 1 carried insurance on the building, the insurance company provided $950,000 to the district to rebuild a structure of similar size. The SCSD 1 Recreation District, a separate entity, decided to purchase the 2.77-acre property where the building would be located from the church for approximately $300,000.
The idea was that the recreation district would own the building and use it as a community center for Big Horn. In turn, recreation district board members said they hoped that a nonprofit organization wishing to operate and manage the center would be found.
So far, no nonprofit organizations have expressed interest in maintaining the building or recreation activities. The recreation district did partner with the Sheridan Tennis Association, which expressed interest in building an indoor racket sport facility on the site that could be used for winter playing, tennis classes and tournaments.
Discussion for and against
General concensus amongst those who were against the proposed community center was that it is the right idea in the wrong location.
Those who voiced support for the center included recreation district representatives, developers, a couple nearby residents and several area tennis players and members of the tennis association.
During the meeting, 10 people spoke in support of the center and nine people spoke against it. Several others on both sides signed into the meeting but did not speak.
Those who showed support argued that the center was not an underhanded pursuit and said it would be good for area children and seniors who could benefit from the recreation opportunities.
“We’re not trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes or do anything immoral,” recreation district board member Larry Kraus said. “The only thing we want to do is try to help the Big Horn community.”
Chad Baker, who lives one mile east of the proposed site, said he supported it as a parent.
“As a parent, you can take kids in to the YMCA, but it can be challenging,” he said. “The property won’t sit vacant; something is going to go in there, so why not make it positive?”
Several tennis players, including 14-year-old Julia Fenn, expressed how beneficial the center could be for area racket sport players — and the community at-large that would benefit economically from tournament activity. Fenn said she plays tennis every chance she gets — and even has an arrangement with a local church to hit in its worship center two mornings per week — but feels all tennis team members could better maintain their skills with an indoor facility.
“Give the Sheridan community an opportunity to achieve an improved healthy lifestyle,” she said.
People who argued against the center expressed concern about increased traffic, safety issues, the distance from the community of Big Horn, the size and look of a public building in a rural residential zone, the loss of property values and financial liability that could be placed on taxpayers to pay the mortgage and upkeep for the facility.
According to Reid, 16 residents live within 1,000 feet of the proposed site.
Steve Washut, a nearby resident for 22 years, said he felt a community center was a great plan but not there. His main concern was the amount of traffic that would be generated by a community center and tennis facility that could be open from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. six or seven days a week.
Francis Galey, who lives across the street from the site, said it is not consistent with adjacent houses or the rural feel of the area.
“The project, with all of its merits, is injurious to this neighborhood,” Galey said.
Laurie Morris, a resident of Ranchester, expressed concern about what she perceives as the motive behind the purchase. She believes SCSD 1 asked the recreation district to buy the land because the school district’s lease was ending soon and it wanted to retain the location as a bus stop for students who would otherwise attend Sheridan schools. Those students produce $450,000 in revenue for SCSD 1, an idea that was expressed by Jeremy Smith, business manager for the district, in an email to new board member Karen Walters dated Dec. 5.
Susan Porden, a Ranchester resident, said she is worried about the burden the taxpayers will feel helping pay for the $13,000 per year mortgage the recreation district now owes for the land.
“The taxpayers are on the hook for this,” she said.
Planning Commission member Audrey Brown expressed much of the concern of the planning and zoning board.
“Is it the right idea in possibly the wrong place?” she asked following the public comment period.
Bernie Bornong, vice chair, agreed. He said he does believe there is need for an indoor tennis facility but wondered if the proposed site was the best location given the need to protect the neighbors. He worried about the change the development could cause to the area, even though it is marked in the county’s future land use plan as a possibly public/semi-public area.
Commissioners Mike Mellgren and Steven Pearce also felt the proposed community center and racket facility did not fit the surrounding zoning.
All four planning and zoning board members voted against the center and will recommend the County Commissioners not approve the application for a conditional use permit.