Summit County planners look to adapt to Denver-fueld building boom hitting mountains

Jack Queen

Summit County is in the midst of a building boom, with the recession now seeming like a distant memory for some. Strong economic indicators are priming the pipe for a flood of new building proposals.

The county planning department, which handles applications for projects on unincorporated land, saw an estimated 40 percent jump in planning cases in 2017 compared to the previous year, with the Upper Blue and Snake River basins posting particularly busy years.

“Without a doubt, there has been a major increase in building activity,” said county planning director Don Reimer. “I think it’s really just about the health of the economy overall. Proximity to Denver has certainly made Summit an attractive and easy-to-get-to place for folks who live there to escape to the mountains for the weekend, and as a result that has led to a lot of opportunity for a lot more development.”

The complexity of planning cases has increased as well, with most of the low-hanging fruit on easy build sites already plucked. That’s pushed developers to long-neglected lots that require more creative engineering to build on.

“All of the easy properties are developed. … There is a lot more building going on at difficult sites that require complicated for places with very steep lots or wetlands and things like that.”Don ReimerSummit County planning director

“All of the easy properties are developed,” Reimer said. “There is a lot more building going on at difficult sites that require complicated plans for places with very steep lots or wetlands and things like that.”

help wanted

The county government announced nine vacancies on its various planning commissions on Tuesday, at the cusp of what will likely be another busy year for reviewing projects across the county’s four planning basins.

In addition to the sheer volume of development cases in the pipeline, new commissioners will also be expected to weigh in on the county’s master plans, which were last updated eight years ago.

The current plans, which set the general tone for land use policy in each of the basins, currently make no mention of burgeoning issues like climate change, short-term rentals, ride-sharing services and the use of e-bikes on county land, to name a few.

“Those are certainly things that have gotten on people’s radars but weren’t really on many people’s minds when the plans were last updated,” Reimer said. “That’s why it’s really important for us to continually update those documents.”

The updated documents will also be used to identify areas that could be used for workforce housing projects, an increasingly urgent need in Summit County.

There are at least two major workforce projects currently being developed on county land, including the Village at Wintergreen and West Hills, a pair of developments near Keystone that will add more than 250 combined units for local workers.

The current political enthusiasm to tackle the housing crunch and the flurry of construction on county land could align to make employee housing projects a major responsibility of new commissioners, officials said.

“We are fully out of the recession at this point, seeing a pretty big building boom and seeing a lot of workforce-housing projects that people could have an opportunity to weigh in on,” said county spokeswoman Julie Sutor.

Work ahead

The Lower Blue Basin Planning Commission, which covers northern Summit County, will soon have two vacancies available, along with the Countywide Planning Commission and Board of Adjustment. The Ten Mile Basin Planning Commission, covering Frisco and Copper Mountain, will have one vacancy, while the Upper Blue and Snake River commissions will remain full.

Applications are due Feb. 23 and open to residents who have lived in the county for at least a year. Board of Adjustment applicants must also have some experience in construction. Pending their approval by the Board of County Commissioners, terms for new commissioners would begin in early April.

The Upper Blue and Snake River basins were the busiest last year, seeing a high volume of mostly residential projects. The Lower Blue and Ten Mile basins were quieter, but Reimer said the workloads are “hit or miss” from year to year.

Ten Mile, for instance, is currently handling a pair of large development proposals at Copper Mountain Resort that are still in the early stages. Those projects, for a 50-room hotel and a 30-unit workforce-housing complex, will be major agenda items for future commissioners.

The Countywide Planning Commission, meanwhile, deals primarily with overall code changes, including regulations for short-term rentals that are currently in development.

That commission is also drafting potential code changes for backcountry-zoned properties, a move prompted in part by the building boom, as applications for large developments on those remote, tightly regulated lots have become more common.

“There are a number of backcountry lots within a ten-minute drive of Breckenridge that cost, say, $50,000,” Reimer said. “Those are more challenging to build on, but people think they might still be able to do it more cheaply than on those really expensive lots in town.”

A draft version of those rules drew significant pushback from landowners during a recent public hearing, prompting the Board of County Commissioners to table them for revision and later consideration.

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