El Jebel land among U.S. Forest Service sites eyed for potential workforce housing

John LaConte
Vail Daily
A bill in Congress would allow U.S. Forest Service land, including in El Jebel, to be used for workforce housing.
Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times

As lawmakers address housing shortages in the West, U.S. Forest Service properties are being eyed for their potential to provide residences for local workforces, including in El Jebel.

Signed into law in December 2018, the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 — otherwise known as the Farm Bill — gave USFS the authority to lease its administrative sites for affordable housing. But the act has yet to result in the construction of affordable housing on those sites, and that’s in part “due to their lease terms,” said U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, “which are not long enough to provide certainty to local communities.”

A new bill being introduced by him and U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse seeks to remedy the lease-terms issue by allowing USFS to issue 100-year leases with an option to renew on administrative sites to be used for housing.

The bill — known as the Forest Service Flexible Housing Partnerships Act — received a hearing in the House Natural Resource Committee on May 23, in which Troy Heithecker, associate deputy chief of USFS, spoke in favor of the bill.

“The numbers of communities that are in or adjacent to national forest systems that have housing costs that just plain aren’t affordable to people is a challenge that we’re trying to overcome,” he said.

Two projects in the White River National Forest have already been proposed as a result of the 2018 Farm Bill.

One project, which was proposed in the Roaring Fork Valley of Eagle County at the Forest Service’s El Jebel administrative site, has seen objections from Eagle and Pitkin County, which cited concerns with the housing density suggested for the site.

The El Jebel administrative site contains an upper and lower parcel, but the lower parcel is not being considered for housing due to the fact that it is in the floodplain, provides access to the Roaring Fork River, is understood to be ecologically important for a variety of riparian species, and is home to several recreation features and trails.

On the upper parcel, however, the White River National Forest says it is no longer able to maintain the buildings to its standards and says the land could better serve the public in other ways. The upper parcel is roughly 30 acres, which USFS says could provide 90 affordable housing units on the low end to a maximum of 300 units on the high end, “with a more likely number closer to 200,” according to the White River National Forest.

Pitkin and Eagle counties objected to the use of the high-density number.

“A high-density build-out is not reflective of community Climate Action Goals, which clearly state that high-density development be located in close proximity to existing infrastructure and transit centers,” according to Eagle County’s objection.

“The intention of Pitkin and Eagle counties is to develop the site to include three key uses: Conservation, recreation, and low-density housing,” according to Pitkin County’s objection.

USFS, in its response to the objections, says it will analyze “only the most reasonably foreseeable use of the administrative site, as determined through a market analysis,” as the project continues to move through the process.

Another White River National Forest administrative site housing proposal, in Summit County at the Dillon Work Center property, appears to be going more smoothly and was mentioned at the May 23 hearing.

Neguse — who is the ranking member of the U.S. House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands — said as a result of the 2018 Farm Bill, a project for 163 affordable housing units has been proposed in Dillon. The property would be leased to the Summit County government for the development of affordable workforce housing.

Heithecker said he has been working closely with White River National Forest Service Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams on the project.

“The ability to partner in areas especially neighboring national forest — where, in Summit County, for instance, housing prices are exorbitant, there’s not land available to develop homes, we have the land, we’re able to work with these partners, and through this leasing authority, provide affordable housing to their employees and our employees — is a great opportunity,” he said, “and we’re looking forward to working on the expansion of it and continuing to build more.”

In his testimony, he said the lack of affordable housing is a major barrier to recruiting and retaining a stable workforce at the USFS.

“We do appreciate the authority given to us in (the Farm Bill),” Heithecker said. “We have a couple other pilot opportunities we’re looking at, and we’re really looking forward to successfully implementing a project on the White River.”