Wyoming House bill aims to capitalize on school trust lands in Teton County - Casper, WY Oil City News
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Wyoming House bill aims to capitalize on school trust lands in Teton County

The Teton Range is a backdrop to a wedding at the Jackson Lake Lodge in 2016. (Dan Cepeda, Oil City)

CASPER, Wyo. — The Wyoming Office of State Lands and Investments is tasked with overseeing state and school trust lands.

House Bill 162 would require this office to “solicit proposals on opportunities for development of identified school trust land parcels and of any other state trust lands in Teton County that would maximize the value of the parcel to the greatest extent possible” by Aug. 1, 2020.

The original bill did not specify that it would pertain to lands only in Teton County. This was added as part of a House Appropriations Committee amendment to the bill which the Wyoming House of Representatives adopted on first reading on Feb. 20.

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“The idea is to give these really valuable lands…a job,” Speaker of the House Steve Harshman said while explaining the amendment. “I just narrowed it on Teton County since that is where the real valuable stuff is.”

“Our State Lands department waits for proposals to come to them. What we’d like to do is flip that and have State Lands go out and solicit [development proposals].”

The bill would have originally tasked the Office of State Lands and Investments with soliciting “commercial, retail, industrial, recreational, agricultural and residential development” proposals.

The amendment removed “industrial” from this language.

“The Office of State Lands and Investments shall review all submitted proposals for feasibility and shall prepare a report with preliminary plans and recommendations for the development of areas and parcels identified in proposals that the office deems feasible,” the bill adds before outlining what that plan would involve.

Harshman noted that the state has a structural budget deficit and that seeking ways to develop state lands could be a piece of the puzzle in improving the state’s financial outlook.

“We have the lowest property tax in the country and we want to keep it that way,” he said.

Exploring options to ensure state lands are developed and utilized would be a different way to generate some income for the state. Harshman said that the idea is to encourage development of state lands rather than their sale.

“‘Any plan will retain the state’s royalty and income interest in the parcels,'” he said, reading from the bill. “So this isn’t really about selling.”

Harshman noted that other provisions of the bill aim to ensure that development takes into account the interests of various groups.

“I didn’t intend to get the [agriculture] community and the state’s hunters and fishers so fired up,” he said. “Everybody thinks there is going to be a loss in hunting and fishing access. There actually could be an increase.”

A provision in the bill requires that development plans “identify the potential loss of public access for hunting, fishing and other current recreational activities.”

The amendment added a similar provision, requiring the plan to “identify potential impacts to existing grazing leases, water rights and irrigation and drainage ditches.”

House District 20 Representative Albert Sommers said during first reading that the bill gave him some “trepidation.”

He said that he was happy with the amendment, but not necessarily with the bill overall.

“There are two school sections that are being discussed,” he said. “The development of them can have huge impacts on Teton County.”

The House continued to discuss the bill ahead of a second reading vote on Monday, Feb. 24.

House District 24 Representative Sandy Newsome proposed an amendment taking out the term “sale” from the following section of the bill: “The plan shall identify and recommend opportunities for the sale, transfer, lease, development or exchange” of the lands in question.

“I would not like anyone to have the ability to sell [state] land in Teton County,” Newsome said.

House District 23 Representative Andy Schwartz said that the state faced criticism from selling state land in the past.

“We sold a parcel in Teton County I believe four years ago,” he said, adding that criticism said the sale didn’t generate enough revenue for the state.

Sommers said that sale was not the best option for these lands.

“As soon as we sell one of these parcels, it triples in price in about four years,” he said. “Sale is not the right answer, lease is.”

House District 55 Representative David Miller, however, said that removing the term “sale” would unnecessarily limit the flexibility of the Office of State Land and Investments.

Harshman reiterated his point that the purpose of the bill was to solicit development proposals.

“I think one of the worst things [the state can do] is just sell these for cash,” he said. “This is all about proposals. Much of Grand Teton National Park is not owned by the state or the park, it is owned by a trust. We’ve got to give these lands a job. This is just one more partial little step to do our fiduciary duty on these lands.”

While the House adopted Newsome’s amendment, House District 48 Representative Clark Stith questioned whether removing the term “sale” would have the effect she intended.

“You’ve still got the word transfer [in the bill],” he noted. “Transfer means to deed it to somebody else. Does the amendment work?”

Schwartz proposed a separate amendment that would require the development plan to “ensure that any proposed use or development of state lands shall be consistent with local development regulations and the local comprehensive plan.”

He said that he’d been closely involved with the creation of comprehensive land use and development plans in Teton County, which he argued took years of work.

“I was actually intimately involved in the process…it was a multi-year process,” he said. “This was a well fought out and deliberate plan. It is hard to argue it is not working.”

He said that Teton County sales tax collections have been seeing about 4-7% growth annually and that comprehensive plans have guided economic development.

House District 01 Representative Tyler Lindholm argued against the amendment, saying that comprehensive plans can “really restrict any kind of economic growth.”

“This is really, really problematic,” he said, adding that he thought it was a bad idea to restrict the use of state lands in “to whims of a city council of county commissioner.”

House District 05 Representative Shelly Duncan made a similar point, noting that Teton County is facing a housing shortage. She said the comprehensive plan in the county restricts housing development.

Schwartz argued against this point.

“We’re not ignoring our housing problems,” he said. “We have picked a particular path [guided by the comprehensive plan] in which to meet those housing needs.”

Harshman noted that the House Appropriations Committee amendment already included language requiring the Office of State Lands and Investments to seek local input.

“The Office of State Lands and Investments shall consult with agencies, local governments and other interested parties, including representatives from Teton County and the county commissioners, and duly consider all feedback provided throughout the process,” that amendment reads.

Harshman said he thought that language was sufficient and that Schwartz’s amendment may be going too far.

“We keep putting speed bumps in the way,” he said. “I think we’ve got an elegant compromise already on the standing committee amendment.”

The House defeated Schwartz’s amendment before passing the bill on second reading on Monday. If they pass the bill on third reading, it would move to the Senate for consideration.

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