Summit County eyes national forests for housing solution
Summit County correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado
SUMMIT COUNTY, Colo. ” As Summit County officials eye national forest lands for affordable housing, they are seeking to solve a problem they created by permitting the construction of high-priced second homes near resorts and towns to eat up most of the existing stock of private land.
But critics say encouraging development on what is now public lands is a bad solution to the problem.
“It could open the floodgates to losing more and more of our public lands,” said Leigh Girvin, director of the Continental Divide Land Trust.
After local planners described more than a dozen plots of land that might be suitable for attainable workforce housing, County Commissioner Thomas Davidson told them it’s not enough.
“I don’t think we’ve identified enough land. We need to find Forest Service land that is suitable for affordable housing,” Davidson said during a work session last week. “We need to take a look at the needs assessment (a recent document that pinpoints the demand for locals’ housing) and the acreage that’s been identified and compare. If (we) come up with something like 800 units per acre, well, then we need to look harder.”
Davidson explained that there are appropriate ways to trade county-owned inholdings, or parcels of land surrounded by national forest, for parcels the agency has identified as disposable.
“We need to take a page from the playbook of developers and use that for affordable housing,” Davidson said, referring to past land trades that have ended up in high-end, slope-side developments.
“I don’t think we have a choice,” he continued. “When we look at the needs for the next 15 to 20 years, I don’t know what else to do. We do have many past sins to atone for.”
But several conservation experts questioned the philosophy of carving into public lands.
“Did they take a Republican pill? Were they sipping martinis and smoking cigars?” said Currie Craven, a Breckenridge public lands advocate and steward who co-founded Friends of the Eagles Nest Wilderness.
Craven said the plan to look for national forest land is an ill-advised first step down a dangerous path. Using public lands, owned by all citizens of the United States, should be the last option, Craven said.
Girvin said she’s not opposed in principle to using land trades to acquire appropriate pieces of national forest land for important community purposes.
But there has to be a net gain for taxpayers, she said, adding that forest lands are owned by all American taxpayers, not just the residents of Summit County, she said.
Support for the concept of appropriate swaps also came from Colorado Wild director Ryan Demmy-Bidwell, who acknowledged that acquiring certain parcels of public land could be a valuable tool for meeting urgent social needs in ski towns.
“They can be a good thing if it gets inholdings into public ownership and consolidates national forest ownership,” Demmy-Bidwell said.
It all comes down to finding private-trade parcels that would be more appropriate for public ownership, based on environmental values, he added.
That could be a challenge in Summit County, where the number of appropriate trade parcels has dwindled, thanks to a vigorous land-trade program ” not to mention aggressive local open-space preservation efforts ” the past few decades.
There just may not be that much land left that’s suitable for conveyance, Forest Service rangers said.
“To be real honest, we’ve been pretty effective in conveying land the last 25 years. The federal-land pool is getting smaller and smaller,” said Paul Semmer, Forest Service land specialist with the Dillon Ranger District. “As far as carving up a big piece of national forest just because it’s flat and nearby, we’d have questions about that. The American public owns that land, not the 30,000 or 40,000 people in Summit County.”
The agency has identified certain parcels for disposal under a 15-year-old document called a land ownership adjustment analysis, but Semmer said the age of the study puts its relevance as a planning tool in question.
But the agency is interested in acquiring private inholdings with high resource values like wetlands, wildlife habitat or trail access, he added.
Some of those parcels are in the Keystone area, specifically the privately owned Ida Belle mining claims in Jones Gulch. And the county and Town of Breckenridge also hold several other high-value inholdings in the backcountry, Semmer said.
Some lands the Forest Service might be willing to trade include a parcel along American Way, near Peak 7, as well as land north of Vista Point, along French Gulch Road.
Using national-forest land for affordable housing is not a completely new idea, said former County Commissioner Gary Lindstrom.
Employee housing at Keystone is on former public lands, along with the Ophir Mountain Townhomes near the County Commons. That entire area was acquired as part of the big Homestake land swap, Lindstrom said.
Similarly, the National Forest Claimjumper parcel near Breckenridge, Colo., slated for inclusion in the Snake River land exchange, has been targeted for affordable housing development by the town.
The commissioners aren’t unanimous in their desire to pursue public lands for housing developments.
Karn Stiegelmeier, elected in November on a platform that included public land advocacy, said the county and towns need to do more to look at areas within town boundaries and near existing urban core areas before going after national forest land.
“I do think it’s scary because it is a slippery-slope thing. The most appropriate places are in the urban core. I think we need to go back and look at some of those places. Otherwise, we’re going to end up with more sprawl at the fringes of our communities, something we’ve worked hard to prevent,” Stiegelmeier said. “We need to be careful so we don’t fill in the buffers between communities.”
Public lands watchdog Rocky Smith also was concerned about the potential use of public lands for housing developments.
“The real estate barons have priced themselves out of the ability to have a community that can sustain the workers needed to keep it running,” he said, of the trend to displace local housing with out-of-reach vacation-home developments. “Public lands should never be used for housing developments,” he added.
That said, Smith also acknowledged that there’s room for well-done trades, as long as the broader public interest is considered.
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