Plans advance — slowly — to use Forest Service parcels in Aspen, El Jebel for housing |

Plans advance — slowly — to use Forest Service parcels in Aspen, El Jebel for housing

Conglomerate of local governments looking into feasibility of housing at S-curves property

The Forest Service property at the entrance to Aspen will be available for the city to develop affordable housing on now that there is a provision in the 2018 Farm Fill that allows the federal government to lease land to local governments.
Kelsey Brunner / Aspen Times file photo

As the affordable housing shortage reaches crisis level, local governments are slowly advancing on plans to explore opportunities to build on two prime U.S. Forest Service parcels in the valley.

A conglomerate of governments are finalizing details of a study to determine how much housing can be built on 2.13 acres of land on Seventh Street at the S-curves in Aspen.

Colorado Mountain College, city of Aspen, Roaring Fork Transportation Authority, Aspen Valley Hospital and Aspen School District are chipping in $12,500 apiece for the $62,500 feasibility study. CMC is taking the lead in hiring a land use planning firm and overseeing the work.

“This feasibility study is intended to study the parcels existing conditions, program each partner’s housing needs and conduct a test fit of each entity’s housing needs in relationship to the parcel to determine what the housing capacity o the parcel is,” said a RFTA staff memo to the board of directors at a Nov. 11 meeting. “The study will also analyze on a high level such other factors as parking, energy efficiency, traffic and potential noise impacts on the surrounding neighborhood.”

Once the study is completed, each entity must decide if they are interested in proceeding with development of housing at the prime site. The completion of the study is estimated to be April 2022.

The S-curves property has been available for years but local governments have been slow to act on assessing it.

U.S. Forest Service ranger station is located near the entrance to Aspen on the s-curves.
Kelsey Brunner / Aspen Times file photo

The 2018 Farm Bill passed by U.S. Congress and signed by former President Trump allows the Forest Service to lease administrative sites for the benefit of the local ranger district. Prior to the bill, the agency could only sell administrative parcels under specific conditions. It sold five undeveloped lots that were part of the S-curves property for $7 million in 2013.

White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams said one attractive alternative is for the Forest Service to lease the land at a rate that would also allow it to reap housing for its employees and storage space for its Aspen-area operations.

“The housing situation is becoming more desperate for us, too,” he said.

Fitzwilliams noted it is becoming increasingly hard to the White River National Forest to attract applicants for job openings in the Roaring Fork Valley due to the lack of affordable housing. It currently has multiple openings on staff.

In theory, the Forest Service would lease the remaining 2.13 acres to the local governments for housing. Some amount of housing would be dedicated to Forest Service employees.

The Forest Service recently upgraded a bunkhouse on the S-curves property and will retain that as a vital option for seasonal employees.

While upper valley governments are assessing the Aspen site, Eagle County is sniffing around a plan to develop an undetermined amount of housing for seniors on the former U.S. Forest Service tree farm site in El Jebel. The Forest Service retained some of the site after a mid-1990s land swap placed 120 acres of land in the hands of Eagle County. Much of that land is leased to the district overseeing Crown Mountain Park.

The Forest Service still owns 70 acres in two parcels. One parcel is about 40 acres of wetlands along the Roaring Fork River. That will be retained by the federal agency.

The other parcel is a 30-acre bench adjacent to Crown Mountain Park and along Valley Road.

Fitzwilliams said Eagle and Pitkin counties have the right of first refusal on the El Jebel property. There is an option of selling or leasing the land to them. The Forest Service would like to emerge from a deal with housing and warehouse space, he said.

Eagle County Manager Jeff Shroll no proposal is imminent, but the intent is to acquire the land.

“It’s been a weird sort of puzzle to solve with the Forest Service,” he said. The right of first refusal, for example, predates both county managers so the conditions had to be thoroughly explored.

Shroll said once Pitkin County provides a green light, Eagle County would send a letter of interest to the Forest Service and open negotiations. The concept would be to acquire some of the land for recreation, potentially leasing or subleasing to Crown Mountain Park, and saving some space for senior housing.

Basalt is a potential partner in the housing project. Town Manager Ryan Mahoney said the town’s master plan doesn’t regard the old tree farm site as appropriate for a large amount of worker housing. However, a less intensive project with senior housing would be acceptable to the town, he said.

“You want to stay away from too much traffic there,” Mahoney said, citing the rural feel of the neighborhood.