CODY -- Planning and zoning boards across the West have often ruled on controversial proposals to carve up rural agricultural land for the construction of residential subdivisions. But planners in Park County are reviewing plans for a residence unlike any other in the Rocky Mountains -- a 145,000 square-foot French Gothic-style monastery.
The Park County Planning and Zoning Commission is scheduled to meet Tuesday to continue a public hearing on the project, which has drawn both praise as a visionary expression of religious devotion, and criticism for its size, scope and location.
In a series of public meetings and private gatherings, debate about the project has touched on a wide range of hot-button issues, including land planning, taxes, traditional Western ranching and even religious freedom.
The stone monastery, to be built in a style dating back centuries, would house 40 men who are members of the Monks of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel, a federally recognized religious order operating under the auspices of the Catholic Diocese of Cheyenne.
Called The New Mount Carmel of America, the monastery would be built on the 2,500-acre Elk Meadow Ranch, traditionally used for raising cattle and sheep. The property, on Meeteetse Creek Road, is about seven miles from the nearest neighbor and 14 miles from Highway 120.
On behalf of the monks, the nonprofit New Mount Carmel Foundation has a contract to purchase the property from rancher Dave Grabbert. The foundation would build the monastery and donate it to the monks.
Joey Darrah, a Powell attorney representing the foundation, said during a public hearing Aug. 17 that the purchase contract expires Oct. 1, and that delaying a decision on the application for a special-use permit would kill a pending deal for the foundation to purchase the land.
"We're on a very tight schedule here, and we can't wait a month," Darrah said, calling requests to postpone a decision for 30 days "a delay tactic."
Darrah said opponents of the project are seeking to place unfair restrictions on his clients' religious freedoms.
"We're being objected to because this is a religious endeavor," he said.
"I could care less what their religion is. This is about the size, scope and location of the project," said Meeteetse resident Linda Benson, in comments made after the hearing.
Benson said she is concerned that any building with 150-foot spires and a footprint the size of a Costco wholesale store is not in harmony with the surrounding ranching community.
The plan for the monastery has changed in several ways since it was first presented, Benson said. A website for the project at one time listed an adjoining nunnery, but that feature was later removed from the site, she said.
Benson and others said they have gotten differing answers to specific questions about the project.
Speaking during the Aug. 17 hearing, foundation attorney Michael LaBazzo said elements of the project have been changed in response to recent concerns, and that those alterations were part of the process.
LaBazzo said questions about the project were merely delaying tactics, and that neighbors have had "plenty of time" to gather information.
"It makes me nauseated to hear it over and over again," LaBazzo said of neighbors' requests for more time to review the project's details.
Some residents and neighbors have asked why the monks, who have resided for years in much smaller buildings in Clark, are seeking to build such an elaborate and sprawling structure near Meeteetse.
"I'm sorry the architecture is what it is. According to monasticism, we have to stick to our architecture," said Father Daniel Schneider, prior of the 16-member monastery in Clark, who has taken the name Daniel Mary since becoming a monk.
"It is what it is. It has to be fitting to God because it's God's dwelling place, too," he said during the hearing.
He said the public would be allowed to attend services or make confessions at the monastery daily between 7 a.m. and 5 p.m., and that the monks would neither seek to attract visitors nor turn them away.
Rancher Dick Geving and his family have property along Meeteetse Creek Road, the private road where the monastery would be built.
"I do have to ask why this has been put on such a fast track," Geving said during the hearing. "I don't think we're being unreasonable to ask for 30 days."
Geving, a former zoning commissioner, said he could not recall a complex project that had been moved through the process so quickly.
Geving used to manage a section of the Rocking M Ranch in Park County's North Fork Valley that was turned into the Copperleaf subdivision. That development faced intense scrutiny from county planners and elected officials, as well as numerous legal challenges from opponents.
Deb Wendtland, a Sheridan attorney who still represents opponents of Copperleaf, now also represents landowners along Meeteetse Creek Road who have concerns about how the proposed monastery would affect cattle operations and water quality.
Linda Gillett, planning director for Park County, said zoning variances sought by the foundation to reduce the number of required parking spaces for the monastery and for a nearby coffee-roasting facility will be decided by Park County commissioners.
Because of its size, the monastery requires a special-use permit, which must also be approved by county commissioners, she said.
Gillett said plans for the project's sewage system, which must be designed to accommodate up to 40 full-time residents and as many as 150 churchgoers during special ceremonies, will be submitted to the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality for approval.
Attorneys for developers and neighbors hinted during the Aug. 17 hearing that the issue may eventually end up in court.
Darrah said any restrictions on the project based on religious use of the property might run afoul of federal laws protecting freedom of religion, and that delaying the permitting process might also violate federal laws preventing religious discrimination.
Wendtland said she represented landowner Scott Justice, whose property is crossed by the private road leading to the proposed monastery site.
Conflicting interpretations of an easement allowing access across that section of road would not be settled by county officials, but by a district court, she said.
If you go
The Park County Planning and Zoning Commission will continue a public hearing on a planned monastery near Meeteetse at 7 p.m. Tuesday in the Park County Courthouse, 1002 Sheridan Ave. in Cody.