Wapiti billboard draws controversy

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Commissioners decline to bend rules for sign

Park County regulations allowed a Wapiti man to put up a billboard along the North Fork Highway, but they’ll bar him from using it to promote other people’s businesses.

On a 3-1 vote, Park County commissioners denied Sean Dimsey’s request for a variance to the rules. The Tuesday decision means Dimsey cannot display ads for businesses, services or attractions that are located off the site. The otherwise vacant, commercial property lies across the highway from the Red Barn convenience store off U.S. Highway 14/16/20.

Strong opposition to the billboard from a couple dozen Wapiti area residents — who contended it’s out of place with the community — helped doom the request for the variance. However, Dimsey remains free to use the 128-square foot wooden sign as long as he doesn’t use it to “direc[t] attention to a business, commodity, service entertainment or attraction sold, offered or existing elsewhere.”

Shortly after being turned down, Dimsey wrote on his Facebook page that “now I get to put what I want and they aren’t going to like it.”

“They shouldn’t have fought me. They clearly don’t think further down the road,” he wrote in another comment.

“More growth coming soon with a commercial business and messages based on my right to free speech,” Dimsey added in a post peppered with emojis. “But yay you won”

He later removed the posts from public view.

Much of the opposition voiced on Tuesday and in letters leading up to the meeting came from concern of the changing the character of the Wapiti Valley.

“We have to be very careful not to ruin and not to begin the process of allowing extraneous signage and other aspects to ruin one of the top 50 roads in the United States of America,” Wapiti area resident William Johnson told commissioners, drawing an “Amen” and some light applause from the audience full of opponents.

Resident Karl Dembik, meanwhile, called on the commissioners to be the “guardians of this one-of-a-kind valley.”

“It will take courage to stand against the ‘progressive thinking’ of Mr. Dimsey and other outsiders,” Dembik wrote in a letter. “We came to Wapiti Valley for what it is, NOT for what it can be.”

Other area residents, Cathy and Randy Selby, wrote to express concern that the billboard might carry an anti-hunting message.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Dimsey said he’d be willing to donate both sides of the billboard for the first year to promote Wapiti Valley businesses and said he’d received interest.

Initially, Dimsey had proposed donating half the space to organizations like the Cody Country Chamber of Commerce and Forward Cody, to promote economic diversification.

“Those are exactly the kind of things that promote industry and growth that we don’t want in the Wapiti Valley,” resident Bob Beal said in objection to that idea, describing the area as a “scenic, tourist, bedroom community for Cody kind of a place.”

He said Wapiti’s commerce and quality of life depends on the area staying scenic, with open spaces. While houses have been added over the 30 years he’s lived in the area, Beal said that, commercially, the valley has changed little.

Manda Siebert, whose family owns the Red Barn and who grew up in the area, was the only person outside of Dimsey to speak in support of the variance.

“If he wanted to put a sign that supported any of the ranches up the North Fork, or the Red Barn  … I don’t have a problem with it,” she said, adding, “He’s not trying to bring Wapiti down.”

Siebert said there wouldn’t be a lot of people in the area if land hadn’t been sold off and changed by development.

“There’s so many houses out there now that you can’t tell somebody else what to do with their property,” she said. “And I find that very, almost hypocritical of some of the people up here.”

Commissioner Tim French — who was alone in supporting Dimsey’s request — said he was struggling with the fact that Wapiti has already changed so much from a half-century ago. He also said some of the objections seemed personal; multiple people referred to earlier exchanges on Facebook.

French pointed out that, according to the county’s planning and zoning department, there are 25 signs in the valley; 10 are authorized and the other 15 are not, either being put up before the county’s regulations took effect or without county approval.

“There’s a lot of signs,” said Planning Director Linda Gillett.

If a billboard was to advertise a camp trailer for lease, “does that ruin that valley?” French asked the audience of opponents. He was answered by several yeses.

Pia Brauser later agreed that the valley has changed, “but it has not changed with air space being filled with billboards.”

She, like others, worried that a variance would lead to more signs.

“This valley is ... the red carpet going into Yellowstone. It is the red carpet that takes people to that gate and gets them there. And that is a legacy, that is something to hold onto and that is what we’re fighting for,” Brauser said.

Some commissioners appeared to be at least partially persuaded by the opposition.

Commissioner Joe Tilden said he’d initially been leaning toward granting the variance, but “I’ve heard some very compelling arguments here today.”

Commissioner Loren Grosskopf noted that the current zoning rules for the North Fork area — which prohibit signs that advertise off-site businesses — were adopted with public input around 2000.

“I hate to change the rules … when there’s so much opposition,” he said.

Commissioner Lee Livingston, who didn’t vote on the proposal as chairman, similarly said there was a reason the regulations were drafted.

Meanwhile, Commissioner Jake Fulkerson said he didn’t believe Dimsey had met the criteria for a variance — which include showing that there are special circumstances or conditions.

“It’s black and white for me,” Fulkerson said.

Some of the opponents applauded the commission after its denial.

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