A planning and zoning issue has sparked some debate over the future of the northern entrance to the city of Casper.
On one side of the issue, a property owner is trying to sell their parcel for what it’s worth. On the other, area businesses worry about what the property will become once sold.
The situation ostensibly began in 2015, when the city traded land it owned near the Casper Events Center with a private citizen for land on Casper Mountain the city needed for the Casper Mountain Outdoor Center.
The land in question was appraised for $790,000. It’s about 3 acres off Wilkins Way between the interstate, the Events Center and a business park across the street. It was just an open space when the city traded it for the mountain parcel —about the only thing it could be because the city had zoned the parcel Park Historic, a designation meant for city parks, open spaces and recreational facilities. But no commercial development is permitted within this designation.
Now, several years later, those roughly 3 acres are still just that—open, empty acreage waiting to be built upon. But the land isn’t bare because of a lack of trying by the parcel’s owner, East Elkhorn Ranch, LLC, owned by the Mick McMurry family. Timm Smith, East Elkhorn Ranch LLC’s manager, applied to change the zoning to C-4 Highway Business with the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission last month. But Smith’s application was met with unanticipated pushback from the business owners across the street and so Smith was denied the change.
The rest of the neighborhood is already zoned for highway businesses, and without a zone change, no developer will be able to build any kind of commercial property meaning East Elkhorn Ranch stands to lose a cold $550,000 on the value of the parcel, according to a letter Smith wrote to Casper Mayor Charlie Powell appealing the Planning and Zoning Commission’s decision.
The businesses across the street include the Central Wyoming Counseling Center, Gastroenterology Associates, Sterling Surgical Center and the Wyoming Center for Sight. A few representatives from these businesses wrote impassioned letters to the Planning and Zoning Commission asking they deny the zone change application for a number of reasons, mainly because of fears over who their future next door neighbor could be.
Kent Katz, a partner with both the Gastroenterology Associates and the Sterling Surgical Center, is among the outspoken opponents of the zone change.
“While the neighborhood is currently zoned C-4, the north end of Wilkin’s Circle has developed into an upscale medical complex with two state-of-the-art surgical centers, a counseling center, and an inpatient hospital,” Katz wrote in a letter to the Planning and Zoning Commission. “These represent a significant capital investment, and obviously we’d like to protect that investment. We fear that many of the C-4 options would detract from the neighborhood and hence reduce the value of these facilities.”
Katz told the Star-Tribune he and the other businesses in the area aren’t against all developments, but worry that certain businesses could put their own operations in jeopardy. Katz named a truck stop as one concern.
“You’ve got to look at that land...it’s a major exit for the highway,” he said.
If a truck stop were to open on the parcel, Katz said it could force the state to shut his and the other businesses down because the diesel fumes would make the environment unsuitable for a medical facility.
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Smith said there are no current plans to develop the parcel, and said he wasn’t sure where the truck stop idea came from. He did write in the zone change application that once the zone change was approved, the company planned to list the property for sale.
Kevin Hazucha, the CEO of the Central Wyoming Counseling Center, also wrote a letter opposing the zone change. Much of the language in Hazucha’s letter is identical to language in Katz’s letter, including language worrying about a truck stop opening on the property.
Both Hazucha and Katz raised a few other concerns, including worry that an industrial business across the street could catalyze nefarious activity like drug deals.
But Katz said he and his colleagues aren’t trying to halt all development on the parcel. In fact, in the letter Katz sent to the Planning and Zoning Commission, he suggested the commission consider rezoning the entire neighborhood to C-3 Central Business, which would preclude businesses like a truck stop from being developed on the property.
“We’re not anti-business, there are many businesses we would embrace,” Katz said. “And we have approached the ranch twice saying we’d be happy to work with them.”
This proposal has its issues, too, however. Casper city planner Craig Collins said C-3 Central Business wouldn’t be appropriate for the area because its a designation mainly reserved for downtowns and other mixed-use areas. He said a C-2 General Business designation could work, though.
Collins said he agreed with East Elkhorn Ranch that the Park Historic zoning was incorrect and that C-4 Highway Business is in-line with the city’s comprehensive land-use plan.
In response to being denied the zone change, Smith is appealing the decision. That means the City Council will now be on the hook to decide the future of the neighborhood.
In the appeal, Smith accuses the Planning and Zoning Commission of “spot zoning,” or giving a parcel different treatment than the surrounding properties.
The legal side of the issue gets tricky, city attorney John Henley said. There is no state statute that discusses spot zoning, Henley said, but there is a city ordinance. The ordinance defines the term as “the singling out of a particular property or small groups of properties for different treatment from that accorded to similar surrounding land; which is contrary to the general pattern of zoning in the surrounding geographic area and is not in accordance with the comprehensive plan; and, which is designed solely for the economic benefit of the owner of the property receiving special treatment.”
But it’s a definition that Henley said he doesn’t think suits the situation because the parcel was zoned Park Historic when the parcel was platted. It wasn’t changed to disadvantage anyone.
Smith also accused Katz of having a financial motive to oppose the zone change because Katz had inquired about purchasing the parcel. Smith wrote in the appeal of Katz that “he has an economic benefit to keeping the zoning (Park Historic) in that it keeps the value of the subject parcel low and he can purchase it for less.”
When asked about the accusation, Katz said he had made a tentative inquiry before he knew how much East Elkhorn Ranch was planning to sell the property for, but no longer has any interest in purchasing the land.
With a public hearing for the appeal set for Tuesday, the City Council could vote on the issue as soon as Nov. 5.
Follow local government reporter Morgan Hughes on Twitter @morganhwrites