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Summit County hopes to set national precedent for housing solutions as US Forest Service project moves forward

Summit County hopes to set national precedent for housing solutions as US Forest Service project moves forward


Summit Daily News (Via AP Storyshare)

By Robert Tann

A proposal to lease United States Forest Service land to a local government to build workforce housing is still underway in Summit County.

While details continue to be hammered out ahead of a final deal, officials say it could be a model for the rest of the country if the plan is successful.

“This is a tool that we’ve been given to utilize under the 2018 Farm Bill,” said Dillon District ranger Adam Bianchi. “We’re kind of the first one out of the gate. All the eyes are on us.”

Bianchi, whose district is situated within the White River National Forest, said Forest Service officials recently completed a public outreach effort on the project and have signaled their intent to use the authority given to them under the 2018 Agriculture Improvement Act, or Farm Bill.

The law grants officials the ability to lease National Forest land in exchange for cash and non-cash agreements, paving the way for a three-way effort between the ranger district, Summit County government and the town of Dillon.

The current proposal is to build 162 income-based rental units on a roughly 11-acre parcel northeast of the U.S. Highway 6 and Lake Dillon Drive intersection. The site, which currently houses the ranger district’s Dillon Work Center, sits just outside the Dillon town boundary on unincorporated county land.

While most of the units would be for residents working in the county, several would be reserved for ranger district staff, Bianchi said, adding that the current housing and administrative offices on the site are in “poor shape.” The Forest Service has owned the land since the 1960s, according to Bianchi.

As the most visited National Forest in the country, according to one 2022 report, the White River area and more specifically the Dillon Ranger District is in crucial need of sustaining its staff, but that has been a challenge amid a lack of affordable housing supply and high cost of living, Bianchi said.

Most ranger district employee incomes range between $37,000 and $57,000 annually, Bianchi said. 2023 figures from the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development show that would fall below what is considered low-income in the county.

“We need to have folks that can support themselves. More and more, if we can’t do that, there just won’t be employees in this ranger district,” Bianchi said.

While the prospect of setting an example for the rest of the country to follow is exciting, it also comes with pressure, Bianchi said. Officials have until Sept. 30 to sign a lease and lock in the project. After that date, the 2018 Farm Bill expires, and with it the Forest Service’s leasing ability, unless that authority is reauthorized by Congress.

“The sooner the better,” Bianchi said of a lease agreement. “There’s a good chance we could have something signed here in mid- to late-August. But at this point, it’s fair to say we could be pushed into September.”
Several issues still need to be worked out before this can happen.

One surrounds the question of what to do with a roughly 3-acre parcel of land owned by Denver Water that sits adjacent to the site. The area may be absorbed by aspects of the project, including utility lines, meaning the Forest Service might have to seek an easement or purchase the land outright, according to Bianchi.

Another is the ongoing negotiations between county and Dillon officials over infrastructure costs and how those will be shared.

Both governments were not in agreement this spring over a proposal to build two new roundabouts near the development. It would have had the county incurring most of the expenses in exchange for Dillon providing water and sewer access and paying the upfront cost of those fees. The county would later pay back those fees once the development began generating revenue.

County officials had expressed unease with the cost of the roundabouts as well as concern that if they did not meet Dillon’s request, the town would forgo providing water and sewer utilities. Dillon Mayor Dillon Carolyn Skowyra said not having an agreement to build both roundabouts was a “non-starter” In an April interview with the Summit Daily News, adding the town had a community mandate to improve traffic in that area.

As of this article’s publication, Dillon officials have not responded to questions regarding the project and recent conversations with the county.

County Commissioner Tamara Pogue said she feels issues have improved since the spring and said the county and its partners are “in sort of the final details in having this project move forward.”

Summit County, she said, is at the forefront of innovative housing ideas. By showcasing a novel approach to increasing affordable housing supply, Pogue believes the project will spark partnerships between National Forests and local governments across Colorado and beyond.

“What we are able to accomplish will impact lots of other communities across the Western Slope and across the United States,” Pogue said.

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