Dillon, Summit County’s dispute over infrastructure spending could jeopardize ‘unprecedented’ workforce housing project

A triaged effort between the county, town and US Forest Service to build 162 workforce housing units is the first of its kind in the nation. But officials are currently at odds over infrastructure needs amid an impending deadline to secure a deal.

A White River National Forest sign is pictured March 27, 2022. Forest Service officials are currently embarking on a first-of-its-kind in the nation plan to lease White River land to the Summit County government who, along with aid from the town of Dillon, plan to build new workforce housing.
Liz Copan/Summit Daily News archive

A first-of-its-kind housing plan in Summit County risks missing an impending deadline to secure a deal due to disputes between officials over infrastructure spending that continues to be hashed out.

The project is a joint effort between the U.S. Forest Service, Summit County government and the town of Dillon. The White River National Forest is seeking to lease land to the county so it can be used as a site for 162 workforce housing units. The project plans to house Forest Service staff and members of the public.

Officials leading the initiative have set a mid-Summer deadline to finalize a lease agreement which they say must be secured before the 2018 Agriculture Improvement Act, or Farm Bill, expires on Sept. 30.

“It’s an unprecedented project on many levels,” said Summit County Housing Director Jason Dietz, who called the project a “first of its kind in the nation using first-of-its-kind legislation.”

In 2018, the Farm Bill — which sunsets every five years — granted the Forest Service its ability to lease National Forest land in exchange for cash and non-cash agreements, paving the way for the housing project. But officials said there’s no guarantee that the same leasing provisions will be reauthorized by Congress when it looks to renew the bill in October.

The current proposal is to build income-based units on a nearly 11-acre parcel northeast of the U.S. Highway 6 and Lake Dillon Drive intersection that currently houses the Forest Service’s Dillon Work Center — which sits outside the town’s boundary. 

Seeking to break ground next year, officials are racing to secure huge swaths of funding including state grants and cash infusions from wealthy donors. The county has pledged $1.6 million per year for the project’s housing component alone. Dietz said the project’s full cost could be around $75 million. 

But county and Dillon officials are at odds over the project’s cost-sharing agreements, particularly regarding the proposed construction of two new roundabouts. If the county and town cannot overcome the impasse, some fear it could threaten the fall deadline — and the project as a whole.

“This is a tremendous opportunity for the communities of Summit County that may be lost, sort of forever, if we don’t reach an agreement here,” said Dillon District Ranger Adam Bianchi. “Nationally, the eyes are on this project because no one else has used this authority to see if it’s possible.” 

Dietz said the county has made compromises on the project mostly to appease Dillon, like dropping its initial proposal of nearly 360 units to the current 162. County officials received a request from the town to build a large roundabout at the Highway 6 and Lake Dillon Drive intersection along with a second, smaller roundabout just to the east.

Dietz believes the combined cost of the roundabouts could total $10 million or more and said Dillon has asked the county to fully cover the cost for the smaller one while evenly splitting the cost for the larger roundabout. In return, Dillon has offered to supply water and sewer access and pay the upfront cost of those fees — which the county would then pay back to the town once the project starts generating revenue. 

But county officials have taken issue with bearing that much of the project’s costs and said paying for the roundabouts alone would translate to nearly $62,000 in traffic mitigation spent on each housing unit — double the amount officials believe they should be paying.

“That math doesn’t work,” Dietz said. “We’re trying to find a traffic solution that will work for the project and be the most efficient.”

Dillon District Ranger Adam Bianchi speaks about updates to the White River National Forest management plan during a December 2022 meeting. Bianchi said securing a lease agreement between the Forest Service and county is crucial as that authority may not be renewed in Congress’ next Farm Bill.
Robert Tann/Summit Daily News

Summit County Commissioner Tamara Pogue said the town has “made it very clear: they’re not going to give water and sewer to this project unless we pay for all the small roundabout and half the large roundabout.”

But Pogue feels the town’s infrastructure requests will eventually benefit more than just the Forest Service homes as Dillon eyes an expansion of its downtown core that could bring more than 300 new housing units.

“That development requires additional infrastructure. And I understand that, I support that and I whole-heartedly want the town of Dillon to be successful in that endeavor,” Pogue said. “But … are they creating the need for additional infrastructure and asking affordable housing to bear the brunt of the costs?” 

She added: “The county’s committed to being a good partner here. But the question is, who’s paying the bill and what does a good partner need to look like?”

Dillon Mayor Carolyn Skowyra said not securing an agreement to build both roundabouts is a “non-starter,” adding that Dillon’s town council needs to answer the “current community’s call” for a safer intersection. 

“This is absolutely in no way a reflection of the work the Forest Service does for our community,” Skowyra said. “We want to do everything we can to get them the facilities they need and the housing they need.”

In one of the most recent letters to Dillon officials sent by Interim County Manager Phil Gonshak — dated March 16 — county officials laid out a project proposal that does not include paying for the large roundabout but does agree to fund “traffic and pedestrian improvements jointly desired by the town and county.”

The letter also asks the town to supply water and sewer access, the cost of which will be repaid “once the project goes cash-flow positive,” which is estimated to be in 16 years, the letter reads. 

“This will be the town’s major contribution to the project,” the letter states while adding that the county “will supply all other necessary project subsidies.”

In an April 3 response, Skowyra wrote that the county’s proposal “ignores many of the realities” of the project.

“The county’s refusal to participate in the construction of a roundabout where Highway 6 intersects with Lake Dillon Drive/Evergreen Road … represents a significant departure from what the parties vetted with the public and long agreed was the ideal option,” Skowyra’s letter reads

Garret Scharton, senior vice president for Servitas, the project’s developer, said to not build anything would be a “failure.”

“You have to add supply,” Scharton said. “What is reasonable is that every public partner comes to the tables and offers everything they can to make it happen.”

As uncertainty remains over a deal, Bianchi, the district ranger, said the project’s failure could have immensely damaging effects on the forest’s workforce. As the most visited National Forest in the country, Bianchi said it’s crucial to support the White River staff with housing amid lagging wages and a high cost of living.

But he’s confident an agreement will be reached. 

“We’ve got great relationships with the town of Dillon. We’ve got great relationships with the county,” Bianchi said. “Now it’s time to bring the two together to have the conversations to see if we can come up with a solution.”

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