Converse County wrestles with development planning

Nov 8, 2013

An existing natural gas processing facility north of Douglas
An existing natural gas processing facility north of Douglas
Credit Stephanie Joyce

Converse County is one of six counties in Wyoming with no land use regulations. When a proposal to develop zoning came up a decade ago, it went nowhere. But as development associated with the oil and gas boom in the Niobrara explodes, the county is struggling with questions of how to make sure it happens responsibly. And as Wyoming Public Radio’s Stephanie Joyce reports, some residents are starting to question the costs of not planning.

STEPHANIE JOYCE: On a nice day, it would be a quick walk from Bob Kayser’s ranch to the site of the proposed natural gas processing facility… But on this icy, foggy morning we opt for a drive instead.

<<Car starting/door closing>>

Kayser’s ranch and the proposed plant site are both on state highway 91, a two lane road with no shoulder, just outside of Douglas city limits.

BOB KAYSER: Here's where the plant site is... it’s right under this… see this, not even a flat area, but it’s slightly flat…

JOYCE: It looks exactly like the rest of the ranchland surrounding it. But if the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality grants Jackalope Gas the air quality permit it’s waiting on, that patch of pasture could turn into a massive industrial complex by the end of the year. Kayser, and his neighbors, are worried emissions, increased truck traffic, spills and the general disruption to the agricultural community.

KAYSER: In this case, the neighbors are going to experience the negative effects, but have no financial interest in it at all. You  need to be careful when you do that kind of thing.”

JOYCE: But back in his office, where a copy of Oil and Gas Investor magazine sits on a desk, he says he isn’t against the plant’s development.

KAYSER: But you need to do it right.

JOYCE: Kayser has lots of ideas about how the plant could be a better neighbor, but getting the company to hear his ideas has been challenging.

KAYSER: The problem is, without a regulatory encouragement, they don't have to talk to us.

JOYCE: Crestwood, the lead on the project, didn’t make anyone available to be interviewed for this story either. But the company did host a public meeting in Douglas in October, to explain the project and hear the community’s concerns. Like Kayser, many residents went to the meeting not just with complaints, but with potential solutions. One landowner even tried to zone independently, offering to trade a piece of land he owned in a more industrialized part of town in exchange for the current site.

But that offer might have just shifted the problem. Jennifer Bayne lives down the road from the property that was offered for trade, and next to a rail-loading facility that Crestwood and another company built earlier this year. She says she didn’t even know it was going to be built until they broke ground.

JENNIFER BAYNE: It's just a free for all.

JOYCE: And Bayne says people are starting to realize that no one is safe from the forward march of development.

BAYNE: “Instead of it just being north of town and east of town, now it’s south of town and west of town, and everybody is being impacted.”

JOYCE: Repeating a popular Converse County refrain, Bayne says she doesn’t want to stop the development -- she just wants it done right.

Jim Willox is the chair of the Converse County Board of Commissioners. He says without zoning, the county has no leverage to get companies to cooperate, and no way to ensure that people’s concerns are addressed.

JIM WILLOX: As always, in this situation, it’s more of "We’re asking you to help us." We don’t have a "Therefore if you don’t."

And Willox doesn’t necessarily want one. Like many residents of the county, he prefers cooperation to regulation. But he acknowledges that as development ramps up, conflicts are bound to increase.

WILLOX: “Every project goes in somebody's backyard.”

JOYCE: Alan Romero is Director of the Rural Law Center at the University of Wyoming, and he studies land use planning. He says while zoning has its pros and cons, it gives citizens the chance to make their own decisions about how they want their town to develop.

ALAN ROMERO: How can we direct this activity in a way that will minimize those adverse impacts?

JOYCE: But Romero says state law pretty clearly prohibits counties from restricting where mineral extraction and production can happen…Zoning can be used though to regulate how it’s done.

ROMERO: How you extract, how you produce. Which could include where you place buildings, how far it’s setback from the side. It could even include things to mitigate noise and dust and aesthetics issues, visual mitigation of various sorts.

JOYCE: But Romero will be the first to tell you that working out those details can be a complicated and costly process -- and in any event, it’s not on the table in Converse County.

Kayser, the rancher, says it’s unlikely that residents would be willing to take unified approach to planning anytime soon.

KAYSER: “It's a dilemma between unfettered personal freedom and having other people come in and decide how your community, and how your county, is going to be developed.”

JOYCE: So whether residents choose to zone or not, they’ll have to give up something. For Wyoming Public Radio, I'm Stephanie Joyce.