After debate lasting nearly four hours on Tuesday, Albany County commissioners voted 2-1 to re-zone a six-acre piece of property on the east side of Laramie from small-lot residential to commercial.
The land, which lies directly west of the Tumbleweed Express gas station, had been proposed for rezone by Laramie man Luke Sweckard, owner of Sweckard Excavation, who said he hopes to sell the land to someone who might construct office buildings or a restaurant.
However, concerns about its proximity to a vulnerable area of the Casper Aquifer led to an outpouring of opposition from Albany County residents.
About 100 people came to the county board meeting Tuesday morning, with most attending out of concern for the zoning change. Commissioner Pete Gosar, the lone “no” vote on the zoning changes, said he had also recently received more than 80 other written comments in opposition to the zoning change. A couple dozen residents spoke during public comment, the vast majority in opposition to the proposal.
Ultimately, commissioners Heber Richardson and Terri Jones voted in favor of the zoning change, with Richardson saying he thought “commercial development right there will be less impactful.”
“I don’t believe 20, 30, 50 years from now, there will be any contamination to the quality of the aquifer based on this development,” he said.
Many residents expressed concerns that more commercial development atop the aquifer recharge area could potentially contaminate the water source that provides about half of Laramie’s drinking water and the entirety of water for hundreds of well-owners east of town.
On the eastern edge of Laramie lies the Aquifer Protection Overlay Zone, which bans certain types of commercial development, including gas stations and dry cleaners.
The western boundary of the APOZ bisects the Sweckard property, though only a small percentage lies within the APOZ as currently drawn on maps.
However, some in Laramie, like geologist Bern Hinckley, have suggested that western boundary might be in the wrong spot.
Under the Albany County’s aquifer protection plan, the APOZ encompasses 79-square mile area where there is at least 75 feet of Satanka shale atop the aquifer.
Based on the thickness of the shale below the Tumbleweed Express site directly across the street on Bluebird Lane, some in Laramie contend that most of the Sweckard property likely has less than the 75 feet of shale, which, if verified, would ban certain commercial development. Residents in the area asked to county to convene a study last year, but commissioners declined on a 2-1 vote.
Gosar expressed opposition to the zoning change, in part, because of the potential that a business not allowed in the APOZ could be established on the Sweckard property, ultimately leading to a second non-conforming use that’s been grandfathered in — assuming the APOZ western boundary were ever to be redrawn to include the Sweckard property. Currently, Tumbleweed Express, the only known commercial business that lies within the APOZ, is non-conforming to the regulation, but has been grandfathered in and can continue to operate in perpetuity.
Under the county’s zoning rules, county commissioners must have determined that the new zoning status “will not result in significant adverse impacts to natural and environmental resources such as water quality.”
Gosar argued that, knowing there’s some evidence the Sweckard property might have less than 75 feet of shale, the commissioners could not, in good faith, make that “finding of fact.”
The city of Laramie had also requested that commissioners limit the types of commercial development allowed on the property.
“Based on current technical data, it can be expected that less than 75 feet of Satanka Formation can be found under most of this property; thus, under the county’s Casper aquifer protection plan this property should be included within the aquifer protection overlay zone,” Assistant City Manager Todd Feezer wrote in a letter to the county. “The city would also offer annexation as an alternative to county zoning changes. Annexation would require connection to city water and sewer services which have been shown to be safer for the aquifer.”
Albany County Attorney Peggy Trent cautioned the commissioners that there is potential for a legal case based on the vote’s outcome.
“That zoning decision can be appealed to the district court, and you have extensive public comments right now opposed to it,” she said. “Potentially, this is going to become litigation. … This will not be covered by our liability pool. This will be my office representing you if this gets brought up on appeal.”
Several commenters expressed concern that Sweckard might sell the property to someone who does build a gas station, a rumor that Sweckard and his attorney, Mitch Edwards, vehemently denied Tuesday.
“There is no offer to purchase the property and there’s no contract to sell the property,” Edwards said.
Edwards said there’s no inherent risk of commercial development, noting that other major commercial development happens all the time, without protest, on the APOZ.
Even if there were legitimate concerns about certain types of development, Edwards said the most appropriate time to block progress is when zoning certificates are being applied for.
“Everything else you hear is red herrings and rumors … to stop the natural growth area of this property,” he said.
Sweckard expressed dismay at the outrage over the rezone.
“I’m not used to being the bad guy. It’s weird for me,” he said. “Laramie is my home and always will be. I purchased this property because I saw an opportunity for a piece of land to be better — one that I felt had been an eyesore.”
Geologist Chris Moody suggested that commissioners should propose a site-specific investigation be conducted on the Sweckard property before moving forward.
“You could put a drill rig on that property and drill a four-inch pilot hole and know exactly how much Satanka is on top of the aquifer. It would cost you $600 bucks,” he said.
Gosar offered to personally pay for any study that would give clarity for where the APOZ should be.
“If it takes me putting my entire salary toward finding the western boundary, I’m willing to do it,” Gosar said.
He asked if Sweckard would be willing to have such a study conducted, but Edwards said that would be an inappropriate condition to place on a rezone request.
Kimberly Starkey suggested that it should actually be safer to have the land rezoned to commercial since the Sweckard property is currently subdivided as six residential lots.
“Leave it the same, and Mr. Sweckard can put in six septic tanks and wells on that land, and wells are arguable the more risky because you’re making a direct conduit to the aquifer,” she said.
Tuesday’s meeting provided for the most contentious discussion at a commission meeting in months, and Richardson panned the public comment that characterized the zoning change as a potential death sentence for the city.
“This discussion has been absolutely hyperbolic,” Richardson said. “What I learned is that … the developer is an evil corporate robber baron who wants to steal from everybody and ruin our community just because he wants to make $100,000. … At least if someone’s going to discuss, they can discuss in a reasonable manner.”
At one point, tensions between audience members and Richardson led to some residents heckling him as he made some assertions about the durability of the Casper Aquifer.
“There was a lot of discussion today about where the city gets its water, and none of it is down-gradient from this property,” he said. “The water is produced from the Soldier Springs well, which is miles and miles away, and the Spur well, which is miles and miles away, and the Pope Springs well, which is miles and miles away. There’s not cross communication. … It’s subdivided like a tackle box and it doesn’t run north to south five miles. … The Turner wells aren’t used for domestic water, because it’s not fit for that. It just runs down Spring Creek.”
“You’re wrong,” Moody retorted, with a few other audience members joining in jeering the commissioner.