JACKSON — Teton County officials have ruled that areas of the Snake River bank altered by a neighboring golf resort must be restored.
Since late summer the Snake River Sporting Club has been navigating “after-the-fact” permitting processes for building erosion and flood-control structures over several years without permission. County staff also identified a couple of inland projects as problems. The verdicts on most of the projects being scrutinized are now in. The county denied the permits.
For one site, Teton County Engineering Manager Amy Ramage said: “They have to put it back the way it was.”
Ramage was referring to an unauthorized berm and built-up riverbank that screened a quarry, ponds and stockyard for construction debris built at the inlet of an occasional Snake River channel known as “Trout Creek” (see map on page 16). The county decided work at the site violated numerous land development regulations and therefore must come out, be restored and be revegetated no later than Sept. 1.
The county’s decision is a financial blow to club owners. Christopher Swann, founder of Snake River Sporting Club’s owner, Cygnus Capital, declined to discuss the county’s determinations on a project-by-project basis, but he said he’s eager to put an end to the costly six-month dispute.
“In general these are things that we need to put behind us,” Swann said. “They’re not things that are worth a lot of consternation.”
“Frankly,” he said, “we felt a little broadsided with these accusations and the implication that we’re doing things maliciously or with ill-intent — there’s nothing further from the truth.”
Swann said that he would be collaborating with nonprofit organizations like the Snake River Fund and Greater Yellowstone Coalition to figure out how to conduct his business in better harmony with the Snake River in the future. Fighting the county’s orders, either through litigation or appeals, is not in the cards, he said.
“At the end of the day,” Swann said, “we’re going to do what the county wants us to do.”
Although landowners are allowed to protect their property from flooding, such work must comply with Teton County’s land development regulations, especially if changes are permanent. In the case of Snake River Sporting Club’s tinkering with the Trout Creek inlet, the earthwork did not comply with universal county codes that prohibit altering natural drainage patterns like the wild, unpredictable meanders of the Snake River.
“This site will likely have overbank flow, at some point in the future,” said Hamilton Smith, a Teton County senior planner who’s been in the thick of the Snake River Sporting Club review.
A bridge too many
Among county determinations on four other projects is an order to remove an unauthorized bridge that spans a more southerly stretch of the Trout Creek river braid by no later than Jan. 19. The same goes for boulder and riprap piles stockpiled on residential lots: They must go by Jan. 12.
Likewise, the county detected a pickleball court, built without notice or permission, during site visits. Now the county is instructing the club to deconstruct the court by July 1.
At least one final decision is not yet in. That’s the case for a 300-foot riprap levee that shields the 15th hole of the Sporting Club golf course from the Snake River, which is protected by the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act where it courses by the property 15 miles south of Jackson.
The structure, which the club calls a “boulder trench,” has evidently been OK’d by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Bridger-Teton National Forest because it was constructed inland before a pulse of springtime high water turned it into the riverbank. But Teton County is not ready to make that call.
Federal agencies appear to have taken a backseat to Teton County in reviewing the club’s efforts to hold the line on the Snake’s eastern riverbank.
At the Bridger-Teton the person who has been most involved is Jackson District Ranger Mary Moore, and she declined an interview.
Mary Cernicek, the forest’s spokeswoman, said that Moore crafted a letter to Swann after a site visit last fall, but the missive was never mailed.
Cernicek said that the forest takes its cues from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. If the Corps were to determine that any of the Sporting Club projects needed federal permitting, then it would be run by the Bridger-Teton so the forest could determine if the work complied with the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act regulations. Those regs became law when 388 miles of the Snake and its tributaries were designated in 2008.
Mike Happold, director of the Army Corps’ Wyoming regulatory office, has not returned several phone calls left over months requesting an update on his agency’s review process.
Swann, who has met with Moore at the site, indicated that the Bridger-Teton isn’t concerned.
“The Forest Service told me in person that they ‘didn’t see a problem,’” he wrote in an email to Teton County’s Smith in November.
Forest Service employee Dave Cernicek first brought activity at the Sporting Club that he deemed questionable to the county’s attention. It’s his job, as Bridger-Teton’s Wild and Scenic Rivers coordinator, but he has not been authorized to talk to the News&Guide about Wild and Scenic regulatory compliance at the Sporting Club.
One Jackson Hole-based river advocacy group has gone on record to ask the Bridger-Teton to do its duty and follow the Wild and Scenic rules.
“The Snake River Fund is concerned that the forest is abdicating its responsibility for upholding the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act protections and process,” Jared Baecker, the fund’s director, wrote to Bridger-Teton Supervisor Tricia O’Connor in October. “The Snake River Fund requests that Bridger-Teton National Forest fulfill its obligation as the managing agency of the Snake River Headwaters Wild and Scenic Rivers corridor and evaluate the water resource projects under Section 7 of the Act. The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act provides procedures for due process, they should be abided by.”
By Mike Koshmrl
Jackson Hole News&Guide Via Wyoming News Exchange