Vicki Owen holds a lot of fond memories from ranching on her property east of Baseline Road and south of Highway 33 in Victor. The 32-acre parcel is the last remnant of the large southern valley ranch purchased and tended by John and Theo Owen in the 1960s. The property was subdivided into over 20 lots a decade ago, but last week the Victor City Council approved a plat vacation so that Vicki can restore the property to its former status.
“The family did all that fun stuff,” she said. “Pick rocks, change pipe, put up hay, feed in the freezing winter, spray weeds, build and fix fences, run cows and horses. Bottle feed calves on the porch in the early spring with pneumonia. Make chokecherry jam and syrup, applesauce, and crabapple jelly. The trees are still there.”
In 2010 Vicki’s ex-husband, David Owen, received approval for a subdivision called Timberline Ranch with over 80 residential lots. In a 2013 settlement, Vicki was granted a portion of the subdivision, now referred to as Phase 1B. Phase 1A and a large commercially zoned lot north of the highway were subsequently sold to a different entity. Since then, Vicki said she has been trying to shrink or erase the plat and has communicated with a long procession of Victor planners. She received a three-year extension of her development agreement in 2016 to revise or vacate the plat, but that extension expired earlier this year. The property stands vacant and covered in sagebrush, with only roughed-in roads and a fire pond.
“I’m trying to salvage the last piece,” Vicki said. “David’s mom Theo wanted to build a house on the last 30 acres and I want to save it to honor her memory.”
This spring, Vicki submitted an application to begin a plat vacation of the 19 single-family lots and four open space lots. The Victor City Council held a public hearing on the matter on Sept. 25.
Teton County has seen an uptick in voluntary subdivision vacations recently, said Valley Advocates for Responsible Development attorney Anna Trentadue. Prior to that, it was often the county government that forced noncompliant developers to vacate their plats.
“Now landowners seem to be savvy to the benefits of plat vacations,” Trentadue continued. “It gives you lower property taxes, more options with your land moving forward, and no unfulfilled contractual obligations regarding infrastructure.”
It didn’t appear to be that simple at last week’s city council meeting, however.
Victor’s departing planner, who has one foot out the door and missed the council meeting because he was at a training, recommended in his staff report that the council continue the public hearing to give the city staff more time to gather information and clarify a few points in the conditions of approval.
Kathy Spitzer, representing Vicki, told the council she saw no reason for a continuation.
“It’s a simple request, really,” Spitzer said. “I remember during my eight years with the county [as prosecuting attorney], if anyone wanted to vacate a defunct zombie subdivision, they were met with, ‘Yes, awesome, that sounds like a great idea, it’s not working.’”
She added that the conditions of approval may have been appropriate for a development, but not for the erasure of a development.
“What I’m confused by in this staff report is that [the planner] seems to want to address the development of it now, when we’re actually asking for the opposite, for it not to be developed,” she said.
The council members found themselves in agreement with Spitzer, noting that most of the conditions were redundant. When Vicki begins to build a house, she will have to apply for a building permit, and if in the future a developer attempted to establish a new neighborhood on the property, he or she would have to go through the whole subdivision process from the beginning and would be required to dedicate a percentage of the land as open space.
Another reason offered for delaying the decision was that the development agreement referenced a public easement along Trail Creek for a pathway, but city attorney Herb Heimerl admitted that since no formal dedication of easement had been made, trying to uphold that was “not a slam dunk.”
The council did decide to require reclamation of the site to its “natural state.” Councilman Tim Wells initially pushed back on that, saying that Victor is home to plenty of large landowners who aren’t held to that standard. Mayor Jeff Potter countered by comparing the ranch to the large decade-old concrete foundation on Highway 31, which is out of compliance with the city’s code and about which Wells recently lodged a formal complaint.
Wells relented. “You got me with the foundation,” he said.
The council members voted unanimously to vacate the subdivision, with the condition that Vicki will submit a weed management and reclamation plan for the property.