SHERIDAN — Sheridan County commissioners voted 3-2 to approve the rezone of property north of Sheridan from agricultural to industrial Tuesday morning, which will allow Ramaco to move forward with its plan to build manufacturing and research facilities on the land.
Commissioners Terry Cram and Mike Nickel voted against the action, expressing concern that there would be no way to enforce what is built on the property once it is zoned industrial.
Both Cram and Nickel said rezoning the property would have been more palatable if Ramaco were to be granted a conditional use permit, which could ensure the land would be used as Ramaco is proposing.
“I don’t have a single problem reviewing Ramaco’s application or with what they have presented so far,” Nickel said. “My concern is more, what happens in the future? What if there is another owner down the road? What protections do the recreationists, do the land owners have then?”
Cram pointed out that the Ramaco project would have a long way to go even if the commissioners voted to rezone the land. If the project were to fall short, he was concerned Ramaco would sell the land and the next owner could use it for a range of industrial activities under the new zoning designation.
Chairman Steve Maier expressed similar concerns, noting that there were 81 potential uses for the land once it had been rezoned industrial, but he said the location meets several of the criteria that would qualify it as an industrial site and ultimately voted for the rezone.
Commissioner Tom Ringley said the plans for Ramaco’s facilities would have to be approved by several other governing bodied before they could be enacted and it was the county commissioners’ responsibility to focus solely on the zoning of the property. He voted to approve the rezone on those grounds.
“I have found with a case like this it is really important to focus, otherwise you might go totally nuts,” Ringley said. “The focus today is on deciding a land-use question. We are not here to permit [Ramaco’s research facility proposal].”
Ramaco CEO Randall Atkins thanked the Sheridan community in a statement Tuesday.
“We at Ramaco Carbon are excited and proud to hopefully be a part of some far-reaching innovations,” Atkins wrote. “And we are equally grateful and excited that both Sheridan County and Wyoming will be a part of it as well.”
The commissioners allowed public comments before their vote and listened for nearly two hours as dozens of Sheridan County residents shared their perspectives on Ramaco’s proposal.
Opponents of the rezone insisted Ramaco’s plans would disrupt, and potentially pollute, the surrounding environment. Several landowners who live near the proposed site also feared Ramaco’s facilities would hurt their property values.
John Barbula, a property owner in the area, told the commissioners he did not trust Ramaco would stick to the plan it had submitted if the commissioners granted the rezone request.
“Rezoning to light industrial allows for many, many uses,” Barbula said. “Ramaco’s plans keep changing, therefore [rezoning] would be like giving them a blank check, already signed.”
Dr. Jackie Canterbury, a biologist from the Big Horn Audubon Society, said Ramaco’s project would harm a crucial ecosystem.
“The Tongue River has maintained its stature as a significant riparian area through time,” Caterbury said. “Riparian areas are incredibly important for birds and wildlife. About 90 percent of our animals use riparian areas at some point in their lifetime. The area you are suggesting to become a facility is right in the middle of an area we have worked on protecting for four or five years.”
Jay Gilbertz, a Sheridan lawyer representing property owners near the site, argued that a rezone would significantly change the use of the land and therefore constitute “spot zoning,” which he said is illegal.
“What’s before you is a notion of carving out an industrial spot inside an ag area,” Gilbertz said. “The discussion of industrial uses [on this land] refer to uses from before there were any zoning regulations or restrictions whatsoever. Those uses expired. The prevailing use of this land is not industrial.”
Proponents of the rezone stressed that Ramaco’s project would bring much needed jobs and economic diversity to the area. Norm Anderson, the mayor of Dayton, said his town supports the rezone request for this reason.
“Sheridan County needs stability and employment; this project would accomplish both of those things,” Anderson said.
Jesus Rios, a member of Gov. Mead’s ENDOW executive council, noted that ENDOW had expressed its support for the project but wanted to focus on the job opportunities Ramaco could create in Sheridan County.
“I think you have a unique opportunity here to move something forward that would [benefit] Sheridan County,” Rios said. “There just aren’t enough opportunities here for young people and I want to encourage you to think about those students who are graduating and looking for opportunities in Wyoming.”
Nathan Mullinax, co-owner of Mullinax Inc. and the president of the Doubleday Sports Complex board, said he believed Ramaco would be a good business partner for the county.
“I’ve worked with [Ramaco] for a couple years and everything they have told me they would do, they’ve done,” Mullinax said. “I really believe this is a great thing for our community. We have an opportunity to grow in a real strong sense.”
The mine Ramaco hoped would supply coal for the research and manufacturing facilities has yet to earn a permit from the state. The application for the mine was denied by the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality director in mid-October after the Environmental Quality Council ruled in September that Ramaco’s plans for the mine didn’t offer enough environmental protections.
Brook Mining Company, LLC, filed an appeal in First Judicial District Court in Cheyenne and the case remains in the courts.
The approval by the county of the rezone, though, moves the company one step further in developing its plans.