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Controversy continues about Yellowstone Safari Park in Madison County

MADISON COUNTY, Idaho (KIFI) - It's been two years in the making, but controversial game ranch Yellowstone Safari Park has opened its doors in Madison County.

The park faced a number of legal battles before its fall opening.

Park owner Jared Sommer says he tried to do things by the book from the start.

"Whenever you get started on something, you always want to ensure you approach everything according to what's allowed. And so we really initiated it after formulating all the plans for it with the county," Sommer said.

The park is zoned as an agricultural game ranch, which caused neighbors to come out as both for and against it.

Sommer went to Madison County Planning and Zoning administrator Gary Armstrong before he started the ranch.

"The landowner came to the county in early 2021 with this idea to have a game ranch, he identified it and asked the county, does this fit within this permitted right to have a game ranch? And the county at the time said, Yeah, this meets our code," Armstrong said.

Opponents say they feel like the game ranch isn't an agricultural game ranch, but a commercial endeavor, and sued the county.

District Judge Stephen Boyce ruled in favor of the game ranch on March 8.

Judge Boyce stated in his decision that since there were no facts presented to the court that violated the Madison County Zoning code, then no actual harm had occurred.

In a statement from the opponents' lawyer, "The petitioners are naturally a little disappointed that the court denied them administrative relief under the Idaho Local Land Use Planning Act and the Idaho Administrative Procedures Act, but are encouraged by the language of the opinion that gives them a clear pathway to a further challenge, likely in the form of a declaratory judgment action against the county and the intervenors, that Yellowstone Safari Park is not a game ranch and violates the county’s development code.  They are currently pondering their next move."

Armstrong says as long as the Safari Park operates as a game ranch, they won't need to rezone. However, if they want to add a gift shop or other commercial-type endeavors, then they would need to go through the process to rezone like everyone else.

"If they choose to add additional land uses to that, then they may be in line to request a zone change. So if they were to construct a retail building like a gift shop on site, that is, very clearly a commercial use, and they would need to apply for commercial zoning. So as long as they stay within this land use that is approved and permitted in an agricultural zone, it's fine," Armstrong said.

Those against the ranch feel that he is already doing a commercial endeavour, which is not permitted by county code. They have sued the county trying to get them to make Yellowstone Safari Park go through that rezoning process.

"We feel that when Yellowstone Safari Park went forward and decided to build their facilities, they did not follow proper county procedures and policies did not follow the law. What's happening out there is commercial activity. They're charging people to come in, to go around their property and to view animals, which is a commercial activity, the same thing as Bear World, which we have just down the road. Those activities are not allowed in agricultural zones. And if you want to go through and develop a commercial activity in an agricultural zone, you have to go through the process of getting zoning readjusted," said Cory Carter, one of the plaintiffs in the case.

Carter adds that if Yellowstone Safari Park goes through the commercial rezoning process that it would take away many of the agricultural benefits the park's neighbors enjoy.

Those in support of Sommer and his game ranch stated they love this idea, as they fear the alternative of what could have happened to the land the ranch is on.

"I think the biggest reason we're in support of it is because the option was to have it go into housing and for the amount of property there could have been around 100 houses put in there and that scares me," said Leann Harris, a neighbor to the safari park.

Harris says she lives in the country to avoid living in the suburbs, and she loves the scenery.

Sommer says he grew up in the area and felt the land was best suited for a game ranch rather than growing crops.

"This ground was ground that at Teton Dam flood time back in 1976 was in the floodplain and the flood area," Sommer said. "The agricultural ground was really affected and it never was the best ground anyway. It raises good alfalfa. There's grain raised here. There have been some potatoes in nearby farms, but this seems like a really reasonable, use of the ground."

Sommer is excited his hard work has finally paid off. He says anyone is welcome to come and visit. He also insists that he has followed the proper procedure and hasn't broken any law.

"We've looked after all the details, both legally with licensing, with all the agencies and with all the local requirements, the permitted uses, which we are in Madison County," Sommer said.

Yellowstone Safari Park is open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sommer says the animals are more active in the morning and evening hours.

The legal battles for the park aren't quite over though, as another hearing for the park's plans will be held December 20th in the Madison County Courthouse.

Admission prices are $20 for ages 11+ and $12.50 for ages 4 to 10.

The ranch is located at 2246 W 4000 N outside of Rexburg, Idaho.

Article Topic Follows: Rexburg

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Braydon Wilson


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