On the penultimate day of 2020 the Teton Board of County Commissioners signed off on the vacation of the old Packsaddle Road and the dedication of its replacement, wrapping up a conversation that started in 2014.
“Does anyone have the champagne?” asked attorney Sean Moulton after the final approval during a special meeting on Dec. 30. Moulton represented the property owners in the contract negotiations with the county.
The former Packsaddle Road west of N9000W was in substandard condition and included Kay’s Hill, the precipitous eroded doubletrack that rises above Kay’s Dairy and reaches grades of 19 percent (nine more than the county’s accepted maximum), and in the past often stranded hapless motorists, to the consternation of nearby residents and ranchers. After months of preliminary discussions in 2014 and 2015, the owners of Ag Rim and Grandview Ranch applied to reroute and rebuild Packsaddle to provide better access to ten large ranches to be developed and sold.
The proposed new road, which for a time was known as the Teton Valley Scenic Byway, would follow county standards, wrapping around the bench with scenic pullouts, a 14-foot-wide multi-use path parallel to the road, and a large parking lot at the end that provided public access to Packsaddle Lake and other popular destinations in the National Forest. After the new road was constructed, the county would take ownership of it, and the old road would be vacated.
The proposal received public approval during hearings in 2016, where many adjacent property owners spoke in favor of improved access, saying that with Packsaddle Road in its current state, trespassing incidents and vandalism were frequent. Others expressed their concerns about possible wildlife impacts as well as the expense of adding almost ten miles of plowing and maintenance to the county’s road inventory. (In the past the county stopped plowing at Kay’s Hill and spent two weeks each spring clearing the road.)
In 2016 the public works department calculated that year round maintenance of the new road would cost the county around $32,000 per year, more than double the cost of spring clearing and annual grading.
Construction of the new road began in 2017. According to the agreement between the developer and the county, the deadline for completion was November of 2019. However, due to construction delays and complications, the county granted a one-year extension.
Detour signs and road barricades left some confused at the beginning of winter in 2019 as to whether public access was permitted and which route the Grooming District 33 should groom as a snowmachine right-of-way. Jess Horton of Ag Rim gave District 33 permission to groom a trail on his private property, as the multi-use trail easement had not yet been dedicated to the county, explained grooming representative Wade Kaufman.
“The new lot up on the hill is a hundred times better than anything that snowmobilers have ever had,” Kaufman said about the Packsaddle parking lot. While he acknowledged that families who enjoy sledding on Kay’s Hill may miss the venue when it’s officially privatized, snowmachiners have always viewed it as a point of access, not a destination.
As recently as last weekend, sledders were still using Kay’s Hill. Public works director Darryl Johnson noted that the road at the bottom of the hill is wide enough to accommodate people who park there for recreational access, and they will likely continue to do so until a no-parking policy is enforced by the sheriff’s office.
The public works department pronounced the road completed to county standards in July. Still uncompleted is the reclamation and revegetation of Kay’s Hill; this is expected to happen next spring, when the developer will reseed the road bed with natural vegetation including wheatgrass, brome, and fescue.
The county will hold a $50,000 bond from the landowners along the road until July of 2021 to cover any necessary repairs on the road or parking lot. After that one-year warranty period ends, part of the bond will remain in escrow until the warranty for the Kay’s Hill reclamation ends.
“That was a good five-year project,” joked Commissioner Cindy Riegel after signing off on the vacation and dedication on Dec. 30. Riegel was the only commissioner who was on the board at the time of the original application.
“The more complex the project, the more anticlimactic the end is, it’s a rule of thumb,” Commissioner Bob Heneage added.
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this article stated that Sean Moulton represented the county in negotiations. He represented the landowners.