White River National Forest Service officials recently completed a public outreach effort to signal their intent to use the authority given to them under the 2018 Agriculture Improvement Act that would increase affordable housing in Summit County.
This leasing authority for the ranger district is unprecedented and could set an example for other districts around the United States if the plan is successful.
The authority allows a local government to lease the United States Forest Service land to a local government to build workforce housing and increase affordable housing in Summit County.
“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.”
The proposal states for 162 income-based rental units to be built on a roughly 11-acre parcel of land northeast of the US Highway 6 and Lake Dillon Drive intersection. The site currently houses the ranger district’s Dillon Work Center sits just outside the Dillon Town boundary on unincorporated county land.
The majority of the units would be workforce housing. However, several would be reserved for ranger district staff. Bianchi added that the current housing and administrative offices on the site are in “poor shape”.
Reserving some of the units to affordable housing for the Dillon Ranger District is crucial. Most ranger district employee incomes are considered low-income in the county ranging from $37,000 to $57,000 annually.
“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.
The White River National Forest is the most visited National Forest area in the country, according to a 2022 report.
Officials have until Sept. 30 to sign the lease and lock in the project. After Sept. 30, the 2018 Farm Bill expires and the Forest Service’s leasing ability will also expire unless the 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.”
But several issues still need to be worked out before signing the lease agreement.
One issue that needs to be sorted out is the question of what to do with a roughly 3-acre parcel of land owned by Denver Water that sits adjacent to the site. This area could be impacted by aspects of the project such as utility lines. This may lead to the Forest Service having to seek an easement or purchase the land outright.
The ongoing negotiations between county and Dillon officials over infrastructure costs and how those will be shared is another issue.
This spring, the two governments disagreed over a proposal to build two new roundabouts near the development. In this project, the county would incur most of the expenses in exchange for Dillon providing water and sewer access and paying for the upfront cost of those fees. The county would pay back the fees once the development began generating revenue.
The cost of the roundabouts along with a concern of not meeting Dillon’s request and forgoing providing water and sewer utilities was a main concern for County officials in the roundabout project.
Despite the differing views from the county and the town of Dillon, County Commissioner Tamara Pogue is optimistic about the success of the Forest Service project for Summit County.
Pogue said the county and its partners are “in sort of the final details in having this project move forward.”
She added that Summit County is at the forefront of innovative housing ideas and the project showcases a novel approach to increase affordable housing in Summit County which has the potential to pave the way for similar projects in other parts of Colorado as well as across the United States.
“What we are able to accomplish will impact lots of other communities across the Western Slope and across the United States,” Pogue said.