CHEYENNE – There’s a cliché espoused by government leaders across the country – and Wyoming in particular — that the government most responsive to the people is the one closest to the people.
That line, it seems, has been under barrage this year in the Wyoming Legislature.
In the 2019 general session, lawmakers have found themselves contemplating a number of bills that appear to be inspired by issues or grievances in a single county. The measures, if passed, could have widespread land use implications not just in the communities where they originated, but across the state — something advocates for county and municipal governments say has led to increasing concerns of state government preemption of local control.
“When we speak to legislators and give them our bill sheets, what they’re given really represents the heart of Wyoming,” said Bill Novotny, a Johnson County commissioner and a member of the Wyoming County Commissioner’s Association. “When we lay out our positions, it’s hopefully received by them that this is what communities want.
“This is now my fifth session down here, and it seems like we’re fighting more and more against efforts to take on local control, and that’s unfortunate.”
Top-down laws from the ground up
Much of the tension this year has sprouted out of Teton County, where local unresolved disputes have bloomed into legislation with statewide impacts. From a bill drafted out of a zoning dispute in Jackson Hole that would affect schools across the state to an effort in the House to pass legislation that would repeal a local, affordable housing ordinance there, Teton County has inspired a philosophical debate in the capitol this year. It center around this question: what’s the proper balance between the traditional roles of local governments and the responsibility of the state Legislature to rein them in?
By definition, counties are subdivisions of the state and, therefore, derive their land use authority from limits set by the state. However, the Wyoming Constitution recognizes county government’s ability to respond to local concerns and administer the law in a way that produces the most amount of benefit for residents.
Once laws are adopted by local governments, they are, in theory, reflective of what is best for the community and what the people, at the most basic level, want. However, in some cases — like Teton County — decisions made at the local level can collide with the state constitution, or may interfere with the state’s greater definitions of personal liberty.
Though the Wyoming Constitution prohibits the passage of “special” legislation, lawmakers can establish set rules with statewide implications as a sort of preemption to level the playing field between counties. One example came several years ago when the Legislature was approached by counties for the authority to stop the uninhibited subdivision of large swaths of open land into “ranchettes” — a loophole in state law that subverted counties’ zoning authority.
That standard, as some are discovering, can be reversed as well.
“This is no place to settle these issues,” said Sen. Mike Gierau, D-Jackson, a former Teton County commissioner. “But the Legislature — as opposed to the county government — grants the power to do land use. That’s how it works. What this points to is not that the county is wrong, because they’re not. But I own a business, and while the customer is not always right, it is imperative that the customer is always heard. I think that the same is true with county government. I’m not saying that the people bringing these bills are right, but they have the right to be heard.”
“For some reason, they feel like that’s not happening,” he added. “And that’s why they’re here.”
Local issues with bigger implications
Many bills heard by the Legislature each year have their origins in local concerns. This past week in the Senate Appropriations Committee, lawmakers considered two bills explicitly related to the city of Laramie: one bill regarding funding for developing its 15th Street district and another concerning the University of Wyoming’s desires to remove itself from the city’s water system, and whether it’s appropriate for the university — a state institution — to drill its own wells, costing Laramie its biggest customer.
The reason the Legislature becomes concerned in local issues like these, said Gierau, is because a resolution can only be found in state statute. One such debate this year in Teton County — whether or not the community could mandate wildlife-friendly fencing in migration corridors — inspired legislation challenging whether any community around the state should have the authority to regulate what type of fence a person could have on his or her own property. Another example stems from Senate File 49, which would end a local government’s ability to discern between public and private schools in making zoning decisions. The bill appears to have been drafted in response to difficulties faced by the Jackson Hole Classical Academy — a small, Christian school in Teton County funded by the millionaire Friess family.
“The constitution, to me pretty clearly, says we have to help schools,” said Gierau. “And that’s for all schools. It doesn’t say any more than that. The [Jackson Hole] Classical Academy is a school; nothing more, nothing less. It’s a private school, but that distinction is not in our constitution.”
There is a clear divide in philosophy between state and local government, however: one of which is mired in defining principles while the other is defined in purpose-driven foresight. When the Wyoming Legislature creates laws, it does so with the entire state in mind. Local governments, drawing up comprehensive plans and local regulations, do so with a set of more narrow priorities. They might keep buildings short to protect mountain views or minimize growth to maintain community character. They might keep lot sizes small, like in Converse County, to deal with groundwater concerns, or keep certain areas open because that’s where the pronghorn migrate through.
“The issues are different across the state and, at the end of the day, having that ability to control and decide how to address those locally is important,” said Jerimiah Rieman, executive director of the Wyoming County Commissioners Association and a former aide to Gov. Matt Mead.
In the Legislature, however, the dialogue of local control versus state level equality can be disjointed. When legislators look at bills, they often do so based on what they do for the whole state, and not in terms of what’s happening in one county. While a bill in the Legislature to end affordable housing requirements may be devastating to Teton County, it does not remove the fact that a similar policy could theoretically be applied in some other area of the state, presenting a case of undue, and arguably unnecessary, burden on business owners.
On the other side of the coin, the lack of statewide regulation is often necessary for counties to address the complicated challenges that apply exclusively to them.
“Teton County is unlike any other county in Wyoming,” said Rieman. “You’ve got 2.7 million acres of land in the county, yet only 77,000 acres are developable. That presents unique challenges in trying to address both workforce housing issues and how you deal with the wildlife, to maintaining your viewsheds and other preservation concerns. Our message is going to be consistent; that local control needs to continue to prevail in the state of Wyoming, for legislators to understand there is this complexity out there and to give counties the tools they need to address the issues, rather than coming in with a legislative hammer to prevent us from doing those things.”
‘What happens when it’s us?’
Ask most legislators their thoughts on local control, and many will maintain the line that people in their communities — rather than the state or federal government — know best how to run their own lives.
“I have a general philosophy — separate from the House or the Senate’s philosophy — and that is you usually want to rely on local people to deal with local issues, given that we’ve vested them the responsibility and authority to deal with it,” said Senate President Drew Perkins, a Casper Republican and a former county commissioner.
When it’s their district that’s being affected, most legislators will also step up and defend the interests of their constituents.
One of the most vocal opponents of the affordable housing repeal bill is Sen. Andy Schwartz, D-Jackson, who knows firsthand the purpose of regulations that some lawmakers consider as unfairly burdensome to private business owners. In 1987, Schwartz purchased for $75,000 a double-wide home on a tenth of an acre lot outside of town. Recently, that house sold again: for nearly $900,000.
“That is out of the grasp of a worker unless you have some sort of assets,” he said. “That’s not the norm.”
With the vast majority of land owned by the federal government, Teton County finds its destiny chained to the tides of supply and demand, where even an inconspicuous ranch house can run close to a million dollars. In this environment, he said, locals begin to understand that a town that becomes a playground for the transient rich will see the community fabric begin to tear.
“This is where our first responders, our teachers, our volunteers live,” he said. “You rely on your workforce living there, because the people with their second homes in the area can’t be relied on to do those things. Given the cost of land and the cost of construction, if there’s not a mechanism to enable local governments to create workforce housing, it just doesn’t happen.”
“The federal overreach now is being adopted by the state,” he said. “This is them coming into the county and saying ‘we know what’s best for Teton County.’ I would argue this bill does not at all understand what is best. If this passes, I don’t know at all what would happen to us.”