Summit County governments working to overcome roadblocks on major workforce housing project near Dillon
Community members offer feedback during open house on County Road 51 project, which could provide as many as 350 bedrooms
The town of Dillon hosted an open house Tuesday, Aug. 10, to provide an update on the County Road 51 workforce housing project and to allow community members to ask questions and share their feedback on the proposal.
The project comes as a joint effort between Dillon, Summit County and the U.S. Forest Service, which owns the 9-acre site near the intersection of U.S. Highways 6 and Evergreen Road, where the project would be built. Officials around the county have been eyeing the parcel for some time as a potential difference-maker in the ever-growing struggle for more affordable workforce housing in the community.
Conversations about the site picked up following the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, which provided the Forest Service the authority to lease qualified administrative sites for in-kind considerations, such as housing for the service’s employees. Therein lies the Forest Service’s motivation for the project, according to Anna Bengtson, a realty specialist with the White River National Forest.
“Like the local community, we have our own challenges with recruiting and retaining staff, largely because of housing costs in the area,” Bengtson said. She continued to note that the Forest Service was also having trouble maintaining its current facilities at a satisfactory level due to budget constraints.
The agreement with local governments represents a possible solution to both of those issues. But the project also represents a national pilot for the new leasing authority, which means eyes from around the country will be turning to Summit County in hopes that the development can serve as a road map for future partnerships between the Forest Service and local governments throughout the nation.
For the county and Dillon, the site represents a rare opportunity to add to the area’s scarce supply of developable land.
“We have been making strides, and across the county, different partners have developed different projects that are chipping away at our need,” Dillon’s Marketing and Communications Director Kerstin Anderson said about the current housing situation. “But as we know, especially with the pandemic, we have county partners that are labeling this as an issue of crisis proportions. … We’re so land limited here in the county … and this particular lot had been really identified as something very viable to build on because of its topography (and) because of the infrastructure that is adjacent to it that is easily served by the existing Dillon services or the expansion of Dillon services. … We would like to seize hold of this opportunity and move quickly to have a solution in the market.”
A growing need for housing
The current designs are thin on details. Generally, officials say they want to include a variety of rental options for community members across a range of incomes, create trail access and multimodal connections, maximize the potential for solar energy use in the neighborhood and preserve view corridors for new tenants and existing residents in the area.
The desire to prioritize rental properties is no surprise.
According to the 2020 Housing Needs Assessment update prepared by the Summit County Housing Authority, there is a net renter-inventory gap of more than 1,400 units in Summit County. For individuals making 80% of area median income or less, the gap grows to about 2,900. These numbers assume that homeownership in the county isn’t viable for those making under 80% of area median income, which is about $53,800 for a single-person household.
Determining the ultimate density of the County Road 51 project, and what kind of dent it could make in the rental gap, is key. Early work from contractor Norris Design has suggested the site could hold anywhere from about 159 units (270 bedrooms) to 203 units (350 bedrooms). Both concepts include a mix of studio and one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments across several buildings.
The Dillon Town Council has previously voiced that a lower-density build may be preferable in large part due to concerns about the town’s current allotment of sewer capacity within the Joint Sewer Authority. For Dillon, a lower density would mean the town has more remaining sewer capacity to use on future town core redevelopment projects.
Anderson said the town isn’t looking at sewer capacity as a major issue quite yet and that the town is trying to balance the housing needs in the community with thoughtfully planning for the future the Town Council wants to see in the town core.
Summit County Commissioner Elisabeth Lawrence said the project is too important to let sewer capacity serve as the limiting factor in how many units can fit on the site, and she voiced optimism that a solution could be reached that would allow for a higher-density build.
“I think, certainly, we’re interested in where we can get more density because we all see the reality and the needs and how short we are in the community,” Lawrence said. “Every day, all of us get heartbreaking stories of people that are having to move out of the community, and we’re currently seeing longstanding businesses that are closed multiple days a week right now because they don’t have enough workforce. It tells me that density is something that can help fix that problem. …
“We certainly have concerns, as well, when it comes to water and sewer and all utilities. … Do we have that sewer capacity? Do we have the water? Where would we then, in turn, get that or build out those sewer organizations that already have that … and add more capacity there? In Summit County, we’re very fortunate in that we do have a lot of water resources here.”
Tackling traffic concerns
Officials hope that sewer capacity won’t be a limiting factor on the site but parking certainly will.
“What we’re trying to do is figure out what could this site maximize in terms of offering affordable housing to people,” Norris Design Associate Carl Runge said. “The big constraint for that is parking. … We would love to be able to max out the density on this with micro-units, studios, one bedrooms, two bedrooms — smaller things that really do have a huge impact and get you the most bang for your buck. But we have to think about the fact that we’re in Summit County, so the multimodal transportation is a little more limiting here. … We have to look at the natural constraints of the community and try working within those things.”
According to the preliminary Norris Design concepts, the lower-density build would allow for a better than 1-1 ratio of parking spaces to bedrooms, while the higher-density build would be deficient by about as many as 40 spots. Of course, none of these numbers are even close to final, and Runge said there were still options to consider. For example, if the neighborhood can be integrated well enough into the Tenderfoot Trail System and the town core to the west for pedestrians and bicyclists, there might be more flexibility with parking requirements.
But parking is just the tip of the iceberg as it relates to the greater transportation and mobility concerns surrounding the project. The bigger problem — the one that could sink the ship — is the U.S. Highway 6 intersection with Evergreen Road, which feeds directly into County Road 51.
Officials say the intersection is already an issue, so the addition of a couple of hundred units to the neighborhood without a major upgrade could be a nonstarter.
“This project would certainly add a lot of traffic to this intersection,” Dillon town planner Ned West said. “The intersection is already challenged as it is, so the consultants that we’ve hired are going to take a look at it and see, if we add density to this intersection, if they can come up with a solution that works.”
The town has hired Denver-based planning and design firm Mead & Hunt to conduct traffic analysis and hopefully come to a workable solution, which could potentially include a new roundabout at the intersection. But West said they probably wouldn’t have an answer until the end of the year.
It’s an issue that residents in Dillon and the unincorporated Dillon Valley neighborhood are paying attention to.
“I am concerned, of course, about ski traffic and school traffic intersecting without a stoplight to back up the ski traffic,” Dillon resident Sarah Christy said. “We’ve been working on walkability for a long time, trying to figure out ways that the families concentrated in Dillon Valley … (can) get across that dangerous intersection to get into Dillon or the marketplace or the grocery store.”
Christy said she was 50/50 on whether the project should move forward after speaking with planners and officials at the open house, adding that she had other concerns about wildfire evacuations, trail overcrowding and possible wildlife impacts. But she said she looks forward to seeing what the traffic studies turn up.
Finding the way forward
That’s the kind of feedback officials are looking for.
This project is the first of its kind, and officials say they want to engage with the public early and often as they meander their way through an untried process to try to find the best outcome for the community. The upside is that there’s some flexibility in how they choose to move forward; the downside is there’s also a lot of ambiguity.
But officials from Dillon, Summit County and the Forest Service all seem dedicated to making the project a reality, not just as a proof of concept for other municipalities around the country but also as a meaningful solution to keep members of the Summit County workforce in the community.
“We’re just launching out really into the unknown, and I would say that’s probably been the largest challenge — finding out what seems like the right way forward, the right next step in the process not having any real parameters or road map to get there,” Bengtson said. “… There’s always extra pressure with that, but I think we already have that pressure on ourselves because we want this to be a successful project for the community. So I think there are eyes on it and checkpoints that we’ll hit along the way. But one way or another, we want it to be successful.”
If the question marks still hanging over the project can be addressed, officials say construction crews could break ground on the development as early as 2023.
“This is a critical piece for us, and we really owe it to the community to get it started,” Lawrence said.
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