If you drink water in Laramie or get your water from the Casper Aquifer, please be aware that the Albany County commissioners will be making decisions on Tuesday that affect you.
Our Jan. 7 agenda contains a public hearing on an amendment to Albany County’s Comprehensive Plan, which is being offered to go with a proposed zoning change for a property on the west side of Grand Avenue (near the Interstate 80 interchange and directly north of the Tumbleweed gas station). The hearing will be held at 9:30 a.m. in the County Commissioners’ Room in the basement of the Albany County Courthouse. If you cannot attend, please send comments before the meeting to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Normally, items like this affect just a few of Albany County’s residents. However, the Jan. 7 public hearing, and the actions of the Albany County commissioners that are expected to follow, have the potential to impact thousands of Albany County residents.
If the Comprehensive Plan amendment is adopted and the zoning change granted, there exists the very real possibility that another gas station could be built on the Casper Aquifer Protection Overlay Zone (APOZ), but exempt from APOZ regulation. To see how this is possible, it is helpful to understand a few of the regulations and details.
The Comprehensive Plan amendment would change the land use category for the property north of Tumbleweed from Priority Growth Area 4 to Priority Growth Area 1 (maps can be found by typing co.albany.wy.us/projects.aspx into your browser and selecting Comprehensive Plan Amendment CPA -01-19).
Priority Growth Area 4 is designed for “conservation and protection of agricultural operations, wildlife habitat, and sensitive lands.” On the other hand, for Priority Growth Area 1, the “intent is for properties in PGA 1 to develop to City densities and standards, and annex or eventually annex to the City of Laramie”.
The Albany County Comprehensive Plan resulted from a deliberative, county-wide process intended to guide development decisions. Amendments for big changes, like moving from Priority Growth Area 4 to Priority Growth Area 1, should be done cautiously and with the interests of the general public in mind. Once a precedent is set, it is more difficult to deny future requests.
Several nearby property owners already have spoken in opposition to the change to Priority Growth Area 1 and the proposed re-zoning. They purchased their property with the idea that the residential covenants would guide the subdivision, not commercial development or annexation. Some have lived in this subdivision under these legal covenants for many decades and the proposed change from small lot residential to commercial would certainly change the character of their neighborhood and possibly, the value of their property.
The request for re-zoning from residential to commercial could also pose additional threats to the drinking water of the entire city of Laramie and some of the county residents who get their drinking water directly from the Casper Aquifer.
If commercial zoning is approved, then according to the 2008 Comprehensive Plan, the “[U]ses include convenience stores, gas stations, restaurants and professional offices.” To my knowledge, none of these uses have been specifically proposed by the developer, but there would be no stopping any of these uses if the Comprehensive Plan amendment and the re-zoning request are approved by the Albany County Commission.
The Aquifer Protection Overlay Zone presents an additional complication. The Albany County Commission has so far refused to address the scientifically-supported concerns of several neighbors who have asked that the western boundary of the aquifer protection zone be re-examined.
The boundary of the aquifer protection zone runs through the corner of the property proposed for re-zoning, but available data indicate the boundary probably should lie further west. It’s important to get the boundary in the right place; otherwise, a potentially hazardous land use – such as a gas station – might be allowed too close to our drinking water.
Although the neighbors’ request to check the boundary was made in full compliance with the county’s zoning regulations, the Albany County Commission has not scheduled a public hearing, even though these same regulations require that a public hearing “shall be provided in accordance with the Administrative Procedures Act.”
However, there are ways to avoid costly mistakes in this matter. For starters, the Albany County commissioners have the option of declining requests for zoning changes. The proposed change from residential to commercial does not have to be approved just because it is requested. The same goes for amendments to the Albany County Comprehensive Plan.
We also can work to accurately locate the western boundary of the Aquifer Protection Overlay Zone using all of the scientific resources available in Albany County before approving any amendments to the Comprehensive Plan or any zoning changes near the Casper Aquifer.
Above all, we commissioners need to encourage public participation. Careful consideration of the concerns, information, and expertise offered by public comment is essential to developing effective policy, and every care should be taken to make the best decision possible. The drinking water of tens of thousands of Albany County residents is just too important and requires an informed and deliberate decision by the Albany County Commission. Public input will undoubtedly help the commissioners make a wise choice on Jan. 7 — I look forward to your comments.
Pete Gosar is an Albany County commissioner. He lives in Laramie.