Copperleaf subdivision litigation comes to end

Posted 9/16/10

However, the Supreme Court said the county wrongly barred a group opposed to the subdivision, the North Fork Citizens for Responsible Development, from participating in the hearing.

The citizens group filed a pair of lawsuits over the county's …

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Copperleaf subdivision litigation comes to end


Bringing an anticlimactic end to a heated legal battle over its 2006 approval of the Copperleaf subdivision, the Park County Commission reaffirmed the conditions of the controversial Wapiti development in a brief, uncontroversial hearing on Tuesday.The hearing was the result of an April Wyoming Supreme Court decision ordering county commissioners to reconsider several conditions they relaxed at a 2006 contested case hearing. In that hearing, the county agreed to allow Copperleaf's developer, Worthington Group of Wyoming, to install a gated entrance, have semi-private roads and multi-family townhouses — things the county originally denied in the upscale, 155-lot subdivision.

However, the Supreme Court said the county wrongly barred a group opposed to the subdivision, the North Fork Citizens for Responsible Development, from participating in the hearing.

The citizens group filed a pair of lawsuits over the county's approval of the subdivision. The Supreme Court and the Park County District Court generally have upheld the county's approvals of Copperleaf, but ordered the county to reconsider the issues addressed at the contested hearing since the North Fork citizens were improperly barred.

Despite winning the right to participate in the hearing, the North Fork group chose not to, being absent at Tuesday's hearing. With no opposition, the commission simply passed the exact same order it did in 2006.

Dawn Scott, a Cody attorney representing developer Worthington, said at the hearing that her clients supported re-affirmation of the original order.

“It seems clear to Worthington there's no further debate on this issue,” Scott said.

Commissioner Dave Burke voted against re-affirming the decision on Tuesday, asking the board to wait another week so he could review the ‘06 order.

Only two of the five current commissioners — Bucky Hall and Tim French — were on the board at that time.

Burke said he was “in no way opposed” to the order, “but I can not vote to approve a document I have never read, never seen, that's never been read to me.”

Hall and French said there was no reason not to re-affirm the decision, noting the lack of opposition.

“It's really a slam dunk,” Hall said. Commissioner Bill Brewer joined Hall and French in voting 3-1 to re-approve the order.

This week's hearing was a far cry from the original contested case hearing between Worthington and the county. That July 12, 2006 proceeding lasted roughly a full day, and cost the county nearly $8,000 in legal fees. Tuesday's hearing lasted less than 15 minutes, drew no members of the general public and was attended only by media, Deputy Park County Attorney Jim Davis and Scott.

In an interview Wednesday, Hall said he found it “kind of disappointing” that the North Fork group went through a lawsuit and then didn't even show up at the hearing.

“I think it was an incredible waste of their money and taxpayers' money,” Hall said.

When asked about the North Fork Citizens' absence in a Wednesday phone interview, the group's attorney, Tony Wendtland of Sheridan, pointed to an open letter the group published in the July 26 edition of the Cody Enterprise.

Addressed to the residents of Park County, the leader of the North Fork group, had defended the group's actions in a half-page ad.

Responding to an Enterprise editorial critical of the group, President Michael Gibbens disputed the issues to be addressed at the contested case hearing were “minor.” Gibbens wrote of the importance of the issues to be addressed at the hearing, including writing that the group's concerns over the appropriateness of townhouses were “compelling.”

When asked on Wednesday why the North Fork group didn't participate in the hearing if it believed the issues were important, Wendtland said his clients believed their input wouldn't have made a difference.

“It think it was pretty certain that with the discretion a commission seems to have, it wouldn't have mattered what we said about the townhouses. They would have approved them anyway,” Wendtland said.

A phone message left for Gibbens was not returned as of press time.

Wendtland also said the group's absence should have been no surprise; his office had notified the county in a July 23 letter that the group would not be participating.

“My clients are choosing instead to focus their attention on the issue of water and the monitoring of well use in the subdivision,” wrote Debra Wendtland, another attorney for the group.

County records provided by Tony Wendtland to the Tribune indicate that at the North Fork group's request, the County Planning and Zoning Department notified Worthington in June that the subdivision had been drawing too much water from wells at the site, in violation of Copperleaf's conditions of approval.

In his open letter, Gibbens said the North Fork group's vigilance had made Copperleaf “a much better development than was originally planned.”

For example, Gibbens said the North Fork group's protestations led to consolidated water and septic systems for the subdivision, instead of the 153 individual septic systems and water wells that were originally proposed.

Laurence Stinson, a Cody attorney representing Worthington, has previously conceded the North Fork group's involvement during the approval process helped make the development a better subdivision, but has said the group's continuing litigation was only intended to harass the developer.

District Court Judge Steven Cranfill had ruled against the North Forth group in the other pending case last month. The North Fork Citizens could appeal that decision to the Supreme Court, but Wendtland said he didn't think an appeal would be filed.