Policy: Environment & Energy

University foundations win Wyoming ranchland case

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News,Business,Wyoming,Energy and Environment,Higher Education

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) — The Wyoming Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled against a Denver woman who sued to block foundations at the University of Wyoming and Colorado State University from selling a ranch she donated to them in the late 1990s.

Wyoming's high court unanimously upheld a district court ruling that Amy Davis lacked standing to contest plans by the University of Wyoming Foundation and Colorado State University Research Foundation to sell the Y Cross Ranch.

The justices also upheld the earlier finding that Davis' donation did not create an implied trust that could have given her room for recourse if the terms of the donation were violated. Those terms included a provision that the foundations could sell as soon as 14 years after the 1997 gift.

"It is clear from this provision that the donors did not intend to require the university foundations to hold the property in trust indefinitely as a working ranch," the justices wrote.

The more than 50,000-acre Y Cross sprawls across the high country between Cheyenne and Laramie in southeast Wyoming.

Davis envisioned that the universities would use the Y Cross as a field classroom for agriculture students, and that profits from the working ranch would fund scholarships in agriculture education. But neither happened on a significant scale.

The foundations began preparing to auction off the ranch in 2001 but suspended those plans after Davis sued in 2012.

"As far as what will happen from here, it's going to be something the foundation board will be discussing," University of Wyoming spokesman Chad Baldwin said Tuesday.

The next board meeting is scheduled for early June. Colorado State spokesman Mike Hooker said his university was "gratified" by the ruling.

The foundations still ought to reconsider their sale plans — or at least wait several years to see if the schools can still find ways to use the Y Cross as Davis intended, said her attorney, Steve Miller.

"We believe that this will have a negative long-term impact on both institutions in terms of attracting major donors," Miller said. "This case essentially stands for the proposition that it's 'donor beware.'"

Baldwin, however, expressed doubt the ruling would influence other donors, pointing out that the courts found that the universities adhered to the specific gift terms.

He said proceeds from selling the Y Cross land would fund far more scholarships than would be possible otherwise. The University of Wyoming, he said, already offers abundant ranching internships.

"In fact, more than we're able to fill at ranches across the region," Baldwin said.

The Y Cross easily could fetch several million dollars at auction, but subdividing the scenic property for cabins or trophy homes isn't an option. A Nature Conservancy conservation easement shields the Y Cross from substantial new development.

After the foundations began preparing to sell the property, Davis expressed regret about making the donation. Her father, a former Chicago attorney, stitched together the Y Cross through a series of transactions starting in the 1940s. He died in 1995.

Many University of Wyoming faculty members sympathized. A nonbinding faculty senate resolution in 2012 called on the university to postpone selling for five years and do more to promote the Y Cross as a resource available for use by students and professors.

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