SHERIDAN — Sheridan County Planning and Zoning commissioners voted to recommend the Sheridan County commissioners approve a request from Ramaco Wyoming Coal Co. to rezone a property near Acme as industrial Thursday night with a vote of 4 to 1.

Commissioner Ben Weaver cast the sole dissenting vote.

Every seat in the county commissioners’ meeting room was filled and people stood along the walls to listen to Sheridan County residents argue both for and against Ramaco’s proposal.

Proponents of the proposal argued that Ramaco’s plan to build manufacturing and research facilities on the land would provide Sheridan County with jobs and economic diversity without drastically altering the land’s use.

 “To my way of thinking, this comes close to being the gold standard of the kinds of economic development we’ve been talking about in the area,” said Sheridan businessman Kim Love. “It seems to me that a piece of property that is bisected by a railroad and an interstate and is contiguous to an interchange is pretty well suited to this type of application and if it isn’t, I don’t know what is.”

Jeremy Smith, the business manager for Sheridan County School District 1 and a former Sheridan County planning commissioner, noted that when this property came before the Sheridan County planning commission in 2008, the commissioners decided that the traffic that goes through the property, as well as the land’s history of being used as a coal mine, justified rezoning it.

“I think we inherently understood that the interstate itself creates enough road use or land use to make it palatable to be developed,” Smith said. “We understood that that area had historically had heavy industrial use of various types.”

Several advocates of the plan also said they believed the jobs created by Ramaco could help Sheridan County retain young talent. In a letter read by one of his aides, Rep. Bo Biteman, R-Ranchester, urged commisioners to approve the proposal for that reason.

“Our local state-of-the-art college trains our youth and equips them with knowledge and talents needed for various [jobs]. Due to low job offerings, and low salaries in Sheridan County, they seek better job opportunities elsewhere,” the letter read. “This is another opportunity coming to our county where we can keep our contributing citizens.”

Opponents of Ramaco’s proposal highlighted the agricultural and recreational uses that currently characterize the land. Jay Gilbertz, a Sheridan lawyer representing a couple who owns land near the proposed site, said that Ramaco’s proposal constituted “spot zoning” and was therefore illegal.

“The condition the courts look at for spot zoning is does the zoning result in the newly zoned area differing significantly from the prevailing land uses in the area — this isn’t land uses 100 years ago when there was no zoning, this is land uses now,” Gilbertz said as he held up an aerial picture of a verdant plot of his clients’ land. “This is more akin to something in a Tolkien novel than an industrial park.”   

Activists from the Powder River Basin Resource Council reiterated that the planning commissioners should consider the prevailing land use when making their decision and suggested moving the proposed Ramaco facility to a different location.

“The lands right now are agricultural; they’re recreational — this is not an industrial zone,” said Shannon Anderson, an organizer with Powder River Basin. “We have a high-tech park just up the hill.”

And Joan Tellez, a longtime resident of the area, warned that communities in the Tongue River Valley were not prosperous when the land was industrialized.

“They keep talking about the industry that was in these towns. What were these towns? They were coal towns,” Tellez said. “I grew up when Monarch was still a town, and when those towns were there, the houses were there for coal miners to live in. Many people had horses because they couldn’t afford cars. And that did not bring wealth to the miners, it brought wealth to the coal companies. “

Planning commissioners expressed mixed feelings before voting.

“There is not much question that what Ramaco is proposing is good for our community,” commissioner Ben Keller said. “At the same time, I empathize with the people saying this is not the right spot. I would feel more comfortable if this was in a different location.”

Keller briefly entertained the idea of granting Ramaco a conditional use permit, but ultimately voted to recommend the proposal as is.

The Sheridan County Planning and Zoning commission is an advisory board for the county commissioners and their recommendation will be forwarded to the county commissioners for final approval. Sheridan County residents will have a second opportunity to voice their opinions on the proposal when the county commissioners consider it on March 6.