STORY — More than 70 people packed Story Woman’s Club Wednesday night for a public meeting to discuss Sheridan County’s proposed amendments to zoning regulations regarding management of riparian areas. Members of the community of Story requested that the meeting be held to discuss their concerns about the proposed regulations with county staff and officials.
Three streams in Story — North Piney Creek, South Piney Creek and Spring Creek — would be affected by the riparian regulations, meaning that Story is the community most likely to be impacted by the proposed amendments.
Primary concerns expressed by those present regarded property rights and whether the regulations would truly foster cleaner water since agricultural lands are exempt.
“We feel like the red-headed step children over here sometimes,” one man in the audience said. “We feel like you’re taking our land. We feel like we’re losing control.”
Since the meeting was not an official public hearing, participants were not required to state their name. Following an introduction of the proposed regulations by County Planner Mark Reid and County Public Works Director Rod Liesinger, those in attendance spent more than an hour asking questions “popcorn style” by raising their hands or standing up to be called on.
County officials, including county commissioners and members of the Sheridan County Planning and Zoning Commission, were present at the meeting to hear public comments and answer questions as needed.
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, according to the proposed regulations.
The zoning amendments would establish a minimum riparian buffer zone of 50 feet from the ordinary high water mark on either side of class 1, 2 and 3 streams in Sheridan County. As a variable-width buffer, it would also allow the county to enlarge the buffer zone 10 to 50 feet to account for steep slopes and as needed to accommodate additional riparian vegetation that extends past the 50-foot buffer.
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.
Reid noted the proposed riparian buffer zone is rooted in the county’s Comprehensive Plan that was adopted in December 2008. Preserving wildlife habitat and riparian areas was one of five priority actions listed in the plan — which had significant public input.
At the meeting, Commissioner Terry Cram, who was a member of the Riparian Steering Committee, said that a survey taken in Story called Vision 2020 indicated that 66 percent of respondents did not want additional development along streams and at least 100 feet of buffer zone.
“Protection of water quality was a concern,” Cram said.
The revised regulations will be considered by the Sheridan County Planning and Zoning Commission tonight and by the County Commissioners Aug. 20.
At the beginning of the meeting, Reid said that approximately 1,800 parcels out of a total 16,000 parcels in the county would be affected by the proposed riparian regulations. He was not sure how many of those parcels were located in Story.
Members of the audience had several questions about the regulations, most centering on property rights and how the county would determine extensions of riparian zones. Though attendees made no mention of immediate plans to develop land located near streams, many were concerned about future development and the perceived taking of land through restricting development.
Anne Ochs owns property on the corner of Spring and North Piney creeks. She said the regulations are being looked at as a taking of property without compensation. She cited a U.S. Supreme Court Case, Koontz vs. Saint John’s River Water Management District, that ruled that governments that withhold development permits may owe compensation to property owners.
“That’s going to be an issue down the road that will have to be looked at if these regulations are passed,” Ochs said.
Ochs also said that many residents of Story have invested in their land and fear property values will be impacted by the regulations, impeding future sales in a negative way since they would not be able to guarantee that future buyers could build near the creek.
“I’m more concerned with the direction this is going,” Ochs said.
“We’ve got great county commissioners,” Ochs continued. “My concern is not with the way these county commissioners would handle these regulations. My concern is that years down the road we may have people that move in from out of state — say California — that may get themselves into an elected position and if these regulations are in place, what kind of access does that give them to the control of private property?”
Regarding the issue of whether people impacted by the regulations could receive tax compensation, Cram said he had researched a similar issue in regards to giving people an incentive to do a conservation easement and found that it would require a constitutional amendment to create a specific tax exemption.
“We can’t create another tax bracket,” Cram said.
Much of the rest of the discussion focused on residents desires to do whatever they want with their land and continue to make individual, voluntary efforts to care for the streams. Many residents said they wanted scientific evidence specific to Wyoming that proved riparian buffer zones were effective.
Reid said no studies specific to Story are available but that nationwide studies have shown riparian protection to be vital to protecting fish and wildlife and water quality.