How a first-of-its-kind housing deal between U.S. Forest Service and Summit County officials came ‘down to the wire’

An 11-acre parcel of land near Dillon will now be able to support workforce housing for Forest Service staff and county residents. It’s unclear if such a project will be able to happen again.

The entrance of the White River National Forest Dillon Work Center in unincorporated Summit County pictured on Monday, Oct. 2, 2023. USFS and Summit County government officials entered a lease agreement on Sept. 27 to build between 162 and 177 units of workforce housing at the site.
Robert Tann/Summit Daily News

White River National Forest officials and Summit County government leaders signed a lease for a first-of-its-kind housing project on Sept. 27 — three days before their authority to do so was set to expire. 

Officials had been in a race against time for months as they eyed a plan to lease USFS land to the county, so it could be used as a site for new workforce housing. Their ability to do so relied on a provision of the Agriculture Improvement Act, or Farm Bill, approved by the United States Congress in 2018. 

With the law set to sunset on Sept. 30, and with no certainty the leasing provision would be renewed in the Farm Bill’s next iteration, project stakeholders had until then to act. 

“We kind of knew it would come down to the wire,” said Dillon District Ranger Adam Bianchi. “But it’s a great feeling to know that this project will be a blueprint for other communities across Colorado and the nation.” 

With a lease in hand, officials are ready to move forward on a proposal to bring between 162 and 177 income-based rental units to a roughly 11-acre parcel northeast of the intersection of U.S. Highway 6 and Lake Dillon Drive. 

The site, currently home to the Dillon Work Center, sits just outside the Dillon town boundary on unincorporated county land. Though it currently includes housing, the infrastructure is aging and desperately in need of replacement, he said. 

Federal law only allowed USFS to lease land already being used for administrative purposes, most of which currently have housing or workplace infrastructure. According to Bianchi, administrative sites account for roughly 50 acres of the 2.3 million total acres of White River National Forest land.

When completed, up to 10 of the new workforce units will be reserved for full-time USFS staff members and up to 30 beds will be offered to seasonal workers, he said.

As the most-visited National Forest in the country, the new housing will fill a critical need for Dillon Ranger District staff members who, according to Bianchi, make between $37,000 and $57,000 annually.

Federal review, local disputes added time

Because of the unprecedented nature of the project, he said it faced an onslaught of review all the way up to national USFS offices in Washington D.C.

USFS also had to open a public comment period and environmental impact review, both of which were completed in July, all while the Sept. 30 deadline neared.

“There was a lot that went into it,” Bianchi said. “We had to check the boxes on all these processes along the way, having to build the bike as we were riding it.”

That was on top of the negotiations happening at the county level. 

Earlier this year, officials for the town of Dillon and county government faced disputes over the development’s infrastructure and cost-sharing elements. Specifically, Dillon’s leaders wanted the county to pay part of the cost of building two roundabouts to support traffic increases on Highway 6. In exchange, the town was willing to provide sewer and water access and pay the upfront cost of those fees, which the county would then pay back to the town once the project generated revenue. 

But county officials were uneasy about the cost of two roundabouts, which were projected to total around $10 million and said just one roundabout would likely be enough to meet traffic needs. 

As of publication, Dillon officials have not responded to multiple requests for comment on this article. According to Bianchi, infrastructure issues continue to be worked through, but he does not think it will derail the project now that a lease has been signed. 

“We would like the town of Dillon to remain a partner and be excited about this development that provides a lot of workforce housing to their community,” he added.

Addressing a housing need

The Dillon Work Center pictured on Monday, Oct. 2, 2023. Under the 2018 Farm Bill, only USFS land being used for administrative purposes could be leased for development. County and White River officials hope that, if renewed, the provision could help other communities across the country.

Along with providing housing for local USFS staff, the development will also meet demand from the broader Summit County community, said Commissioner Tamara Pogue. 

“This project will provide vital worker housing not just for the forest service but the community, which is in desperate need for housing,” she said. “It takes a village to build housing. Summit County government doesn’t own a lot of the infrastructure that housing development requires, and so that requires partnerships.”

According to her, the development could break ground in June 2024 and is expected to take about two years to complete. It will likely include a mix of one-, two- and three-bedroom units aimed at residents making between 80% and 120% of the area median income, which translates to a range of $62,080 to $93,120 for an individual, according to 2023 figures

She said the county has pledged $5 million from a state grant for the project in addition to $1.8 million every year for 15 years or until the project’s debts are paid off.

Could it happen again?

In rural communities across the country lacking affordable housing, local officials said their project is one that could be replicated. 

But that is far from guaranteed. 

The Farm Bill lapses every five years, and Congress has yet to pass a new one after the most recent iteration expired late last week. While the Farm Bill overall is seen as must-pass legislation, it’s unclear if the provision that allows for USFS land leases will be renewed as part of the legislation. 

In May, bipartisan legislation was introduced in Congress to keep USFS’ leasing authority through 2028. 

Versions of the Forest Service Flexible Housing Partnerships Act were proposed in both the Senate and House of Representatives but have yet to move toward becoming law, despite backing from a coalition of lawmakers including Sen. Michael Bennet, Rep. Joe Neguse, and Rep. Lauren Boebert. 

“Colorado faces a housing crisis, and our mountain and rural communities are at the center of it,” Bennet said in a statement issued after the Sept. 27 lease signing in Summit County. “Colorado is leading by example, and I’m pleased to see the first project in the nation under this new authority move forward.”

Had local officials failed to secure a lease, Bianchi said it likely would have dimmed lawmakers’ prospects of renewing the legislation. 

He now believes it has a chance. 

“What we were hearing from our congressional partners is we need to be able to demonstrate that this is something that can work,” he said.