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April 13, 2010 3:48 am

Copperleaf subdivision upheld

Written by Tribune Staff

{mosimage} Supreme Court upholds plat of embattled Wapiti development

The Wyoming Supreme Court on Thursday generally upheld the Park County Commission's 2006 decision to approve the Copperleaf subdivision west of Wapiti, though ordering the commission to reconsider a few small features of the development.

The high court's decision could signal the beginning of the end of a long-running legal battle pursued by a group of North Fork landowners who have opposed the upscale, 550-acre, 155-lot subdivision.

Writing for a unanimous court, Chief Justice Barton Voigt largely affirmed District Court Judge Steven Cranfill's June 2009 decision holding that the county had followed its own planning and zoning rules in giving Copperleaf a green light.

Most of the procedural challenges raised by the North Fork Citizens for Responsible Development regarding the county's planning and zoning approval process were rejected by the court. The Supreme Court also found that the record supported the commissioners' finding that the subdivision had enough water and open space.

“I think in general, the county's pleased with the outcome of the decision,” said Park County Attorney Bryan Skoric.

“I think it's a fantastic decision,” said Laurence Stinson, an attorney for the subdivision's developer, Worthington Group of Wyoming. He said the Supreme Court's decision upholding the subdivision's final plat affirms that the already-constructed infrastructure and homes at the Copperleaf site will not be torn down — something attorneys for the North Fork group had said was a possibility.

“That was never going to happen, but people don't know (that),” said Stinson, saying that legal uncertainty has slowed lot sales at the site.

Now, “We're really done,” Stinson said.

The Supreme Court did find that the county improperly denied the North Fork group access to a 2006 hearing.

Worthington had appealed initial county restrictions requiring Copperleaf's roads to be dedicated to the public, prohibiting multi-family dwellings, and disallowing a gated subdivision entrance. At a July 12, 2006 contested case hearing, the commission modified the conditions.

In his decision last year, Judge Cranfill found that the commission was within its rights to deny North Fork's access to that hearing, holding that the commission was an adequate representative of their interests.

“This Court can discern no reason why (North Fork's) interests are not completely aligned with the (Board's) interest with regard to the contested case proceeding,” wrote Cranfill.

The Supreme Court disagreed.

“(T)he record reveals the Board's unyielding opposition to any participation by (North Fork) throughout the entire process,” wrote Voigt. “The Board's attitude toward (North Fork) could more readily be described as adversarial than as representative.”

Voigt ordered the District Court and County Commission to reconsider the limited issues impacted by the '06 hearing — the allowance of a gated entrance, semi-private roads and multi-family townhouses.

County Attorney Skoric said losing the issue of the contested case hearing is “something we can live with.”

What happens next “will be up to the District Court,” said Skoric, but he said the likeliest scenario is ordering the board to have a new hearing.

North Fork Citizen's attorney Tony Wendtland said the issues to be reconsidered are “important things.” Specifically, he highlighted the issue of townhouses.

Though as of Monday Wendtland had not yet visited with his clients about the high court's decision, he expects the group to press on.

“We've always said we'll pursue all this stuff,” he said.

Wendtland said the group's ultimate goal is to ensure that the subdivision, “if it is allowed to exist, is done right.”

At a cost of some $12 million, Copperleaf's infrastructure has already been completed. The Supreme Court rejected an argument made by Worthington — and supported by the county — that the issue was moot because the subdivision is complete.

“We continue to hold that, in Wyoming, completion of a project under a variance or permit during the pendency of an appeal does not render the appellate issues moot,” wrote Chief Justice Voigt.

A separate North Fork group legal challenge in Park County's District Court regarding the subdivision's well permits may now go forward. It had been on hold pending the Supreme Court's determination as to whether the issue was moot.

Today, the subdivision is mostly vacant. A tough real estate market and the ongoing legal uncertainty have been cited as factors.

With sales slow and Worthington dealing with debt problems, an Idaho-based appraiser told the Billings Gazette last month that Copperleaf may be heading toward foreclosure.

Last week's decision was the Supreme Court's second ruling on the case. In 2008, the court found that the North Fork group had the legal standing to bring the suit, as landowners potentially impacted by the development.

Stinson, Worthington's lawyer, said the decision confirmed that the county commission gave the Coppleaf subdivision a more rigorous look than any other development.

“You may not like what the subdivision looks like, but it is well-designed,” he said.