Summit County to buy Lake Hill property from Forest Service for $1.75M

Summit County Commissioner Dan Gibbs, foreground, and former U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, (D-Colorado) in 2014 when they visited the Lake Hill property that the county is now in the process of buying from the U.S. Forest Service for workforce housing development.
Courtesy / Summit County |

The long-awaited plan for Summit County’s purchase and eventual development of the Lake Hill property northeast of Frisco is finally a go.

Following a protracted process dating back to 2010, Summit’s Board of County Commissioners enthusiastically gave their stamp of approval on Tuesday to buy the parcel of land from the U.S. Forest Service for $1.75 million. The approximately 45-acre swath of forest between Dillon Dam Road and Interstate 70 will provide the county another plot in its push toward future workforce housing.

“It’s amazing,” said Commissioner Dan Gibbs. “It’s unbelievable to think that here we are just inches away from actually purchasing this land. It feels so good.”

Because the Forest Service owns it, acquiring Lake Hill has been anything but an easy process for the county. It’s been more like a minefield of red tape. However, an initial conversation could at least be struck up about it with the passage of a 2005 federal law known as the Forest Service Facility Realignment and Enhancement Act, or FSFREA.

With the Forest Service facing increased budget cuts, the law was put into effect to allow the sale or exchange of an unlimited number of administrative properties, up to 40 acres, in pursuit of purchase, construction or improvement of national forest facilities. Attempting to piggyback off this law, Gibbs, elected to office in 2010, made Lake Hill his pet project and the county got to work.

First U.S. Rep. Jared Polis (D-Boulder) stepped up and introduced a bill to the House of Representatives in June 2013. After receiving unanimous consent, then-Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colorado) in collaboration with Sen. Michael Bennet, also a Democrat, carried companion legislation into the Senate in July that same year. Both houses offered unanimous consent, clearing the way for the unique bill to move forward.

The Lake Hill Administrative Site Affordable Housing Act landed on President Obama’s desk in summer 2014, and he signed it into law on July 25. The approval of the bill provided for the Forest Service, specifically the White River National Forest, to have the Lake Hill property appraised in preparation of sale to the county.

“Usually we do it a little cleaner, a little simpler,” said Gary Martinez, county manager. “I can’t tell you how many phone calls and memos and meetings and handwringing sessions we’ve had over the hope for purchase of this property. To have it now be a reality is, in my mind, just an absolutely great milestone for the county.”

Not only was the county able to finally authorize execution of the necessary documents to make the purchase, but, at a price of $1.75 million, it’s also getting the property at less than the originally anticipated cost. An initial estimate ahead of the Forest Service’s final appraisal of the land parcel through its regional office was about $2.5 million. An adjustment was made to the final appraisal due to the substantial expense of extending utilities and services such as water, sewers and roads to the property.

Included in the Lake Hill legislation was a requirement that the funds used to buy the space be designated for facilities in Region 2 of U.S. Forest Service land, which spans Colorado, Wyoming and South Dakota. But because White River is the forest from which the sale comes, the proceeds will stay in the area.

A proposal has already been submitted to the Secretary of Agriculture for the $1.75 million to go toward the Dillon Ranger District’s purchase of the station it currently leases from Silverthone, in addition to some improvements to that facility with energy efficiencies like insulation and new windows. But at a cost of roughly $1.8 million, on top of an estimate of a couple hundred thousand dollars for those improvements, the Forest Service will actually fall a bit short of the asking price.

“I’m a little disappointed there, but you never look a gift horse in the mouth,” said Scott Fitzwilliams, White River National Forest’s supervisor. “We have so many needs on facilities, upgrades and renovations, and those are astronomically costly. Budgets are going down and down and down. We have 8,000 fewer employees nationwide due to downsizing, and we have fewer facilities — many of which are severally dilapidated properties.

“We had an incentive to get rid of property we no longer need,” he added. “We look forward to the closing real quick here.”

The county had initially set a target date of closing on the Lake Hill property by the end of the year. Now with just a purchase and sale agreement standing in the way, that still may happen. If not, the county plans to do so no later than the second or third week of January, followed by the choosing and hiring of a firm to assist with infrastructure estimates and preliminary engineering as part of the master planning process.

“It’s going to be a new neighborhood,” said Martinez. “We want it to be compatible with close-by neighborhoods — the theme and the character, and rules and regulations that the town of Frisco has.”

Resolving how exactly the property will be developed, including a period of public input through the Summit County Planning Department, would be the next step. That is the precursor to making decisions on such details as how the space will be configured, how many units will be built — the county’s early notion is Lake Hill could offer between 250 and 350 housing units — and how many will be rental versus for-sale properties.

In the meanwhile, how all of that will be paid for is the big, unsettled question.

“As soon as we can, we need to understand the ballpark of what it’s going to take,” said Commissioner Thomas Davidson. “It’s many millions of dollars that we don’t have, and we have to figure out from where that’s going to come.”

As with other recent affordable housing developments, the county, in cooperation with Frisco, will look to be creative, as well as utilize public-private partnerships. Vail Resorts, with its pledge last week of a yet-to-be-determined portion of $30 million to the county for workforce housing, in addition to its own local parcels of land, may be one option. Meetings between the county and the resort company are scheduled for later this week.

Those are all specifics to be worked out down the road. Right now, Summit County, made up of about 80 percent federal land — providing for its economy to be largely based on the environment but also making land for local housing quite difficult to find — is just thankful to finally have Lake Hill, in its ideal, centralized location, within its grasp.

“It wasn’t a pristine Forest Service land that we were trying to acquire,” said Gibbs. “That land was just perfectly structured, impacted by bark beetle, power lines going through it, and you’ve got a highway on each side. At the end of the day I think it’s going to be a win-win for the U.S. Forest Service and for Summit County, as a whole.”

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