CHEYENNE — A highly controversial bill to exempt private schools from local zoning regulations passed the Wyoming House of Representatives on Monday and will now head to Gov. Mark Gordon’s desk for his signature.
The bill passed 33-26, with one member excused.
Sponsored by Sen. Eli Bebout, R-Riverton, Senate File 49 was contentious from its start. The bill was inspired by zoning issues Stephen Friess faced as he planned a new facility for the Teton County private school he funds.
The facility was meant to serve as a permanent home for the school once its lease with a local church expired later this year. Many of the bill’s allies in the Legislature have argued the county’s unwillingness to grant the school one of the four variances it needed has presented an existential threat to the school, often citing a golf course with a massive clubhouse across the street as an example of the arbitrary nature of local zoning law.
Others, however, have argued that the school did not need to be as large as it was planned, and that passing a bill with greater land use implications for the entire state was improper.
Friess declined comment after Monday’s vote. His father, Foster, is a prominent Republican donor who was the runner-up in Wyoming’s 2018 gubernatorial primary.
While a zoning law on paper, the debates this session around SF49 quickly evolved into a conversation around larger, philosophical questions of parity between public and private schools under the Wyoming Constitution. Although, as many noted, the document has numerous provisions differentiating private schools from public schools under state law.
The dialogue also broached issues of local control and the limits to which a county government could dictate land use in their communities, a conversation that carried on well into the bill’s third reading Monday.
“This session, we’ve had six different bills challenging zoning decisions made in my county,” said Rep. Andy Schwartz, D-Jackson, a primary opponent of the bill. “It’s been hard for me while this is going on to explain what zoning is and how hard of an issue it is for Teton County.”
Citing the high voter turnout in his own community and, he said, the inherent support for local zoning decisions in Teton County, Schwartz argued that a vote to take local control away from the county was an affront to representative democracy and gave the wrong message to not just his constituents but those of everyone else in the body.
“For me this is really problematic,” Schwartz said. “We keep sending the message to my county to ‘Come on down to Cheyenne, and you’ll get what you need.’”
Others said the bill was a means to answer to governmental overreach by county governments.
“This comes down to private property rights,” said Rep. Tyler Lindholm, R-Sundance, a vocal ally on the floor for the bill. “Do you or do you not have the right to do what you want on your own property?”
“I disagree with the idea that because there is so little land available in Teton County, that we should do away with private property rights,” he added.
Rep. Mike Yin, a Democrat from Teton County, pushed back, arguing that the bill would elevate the private property rights of one group over the rights of another group under a county’s local zoning law.
Several amendments to soften the impacts of the bill were introduced on Monday as well, though none landed. One amendment, which failed, would have required private schools to regularly certify themselves with county officials each year. Two amendments to limit the amount of time the bill would be in effect also failed. Another failed amendment would have set a sunset date for the legislation, which some argued would have left the door open for a legal challenge to the school that would stop its construction.
An additional amendment, which would have delayed the effective date of the legislation to April 1, 2020, was meant to give the municipality in question — Teton County — ample time to figure out a “local solution” and assuage fears that the bill was intended as a special favor to the millionaire sponsor of the bill.
“Right or wrong, there’s a big push out there by people in this state — whether by perception or what’s been in the press — who thinks this bill has some nefarious intentions,” said Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne, who voted for the bill. “This amendment sort of eases those concerns.”
That amendment, however, failed.