Questions arise as Forest Service land eyed for housing | SummitDaily.com

Questions arise as Forest Service land eyed for housing

BOB BERWYN
summit daily news

SUMMIT COUNTY ” A plan to use about 50 acres of national forest land between the Dam Road and I-70 for affordable housing stems from a 2005 law that makes it easier for the Forest Service to get rid of “under-utilized” parcels.

Since the law was passed, the White River National Forest has identified several tracts that could be conveyed to local towns or other entities. The law in particular aimed at administrative sites, said Randy Parker, a land specialist with the White River forest.

The Forest Service has been talking with the town of Eagle about property it owns within the town boundary, Parker said. And the Forest Service compound near Dillon has been under on-and-off discussion for the past several years, as both agency and local officials have questioned whether that’s the best place for a Forest Service housing complex.

In the current talks between the Forest Service and Summit County, the preferred option is a long-term lease of the Lake Hill parcel, totaling about 170 acres. Toward the Frisco side of the tract, an early conceptual plan shows potential for developing several hundred units of affordable housing.

In the same general area, the county and the Forest Service are moving toward an enlargement of Old Dillon Reservoir, and another local group has expressed interest in developing a renewable energy farm.

“The lease option caught my eye,” said Parker. By retaining ownership, the Forest Service would still exercise long-term control of the land. Under a lease, the agency could ensure that its own housing needs are addressed as part of the deal, Parker said.

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The general idea is to work toward a collaborative agreement that meets the needs of the agency and local communities, he said.

The idea has a social component in that Forest Service housing would be integrated with the rest of the community instead of set apart in a federal compound, as is now often the case.

Parker said that reflects overall demographic change, away from the day when Forest Service rangers were stationed at isolated compounds in rural areas. Part of the parcel in question could also be used for Forest Service facilities, he added.

Local officials have only talked about the Lake Hill parcel in very general terms at public meetings. During a recent county commissioner work session, staff said there are some preliminary conceptual plans showing how the land could be used.

For now, the plans for that land are in a very early stage, according to Parker. In fact, before any sort of development deal is made, the U.S. Congress would need to pass some new legislation to clarify how such a pact between the federal government and local entities could work.

“The existing authorities aren’t adequate,” Parker said.

The Forest Service has somewhat similar lease agreements with other federal agencies, including the US. Department of Veterans Affairs. But the existing law doesn’t give a framework for how an affordable housing partnership with local governments might work.

It’s not clear if there are any other legal limitations that might prohibit the use of federal or state dollars for a housing project on leased land.

Under any scenario, some type of detailed environmental study would be required before any development occurs on the land.

The idea of using of federal land for affordable housing has drawn criticism. Starting to open the public domain in this way sets a dangerous precedent that national forest land is fair game for any perceived community need, said local conservation advocate Currie Craven.

Developing Lake Hill could create new residential sprawl at the edge of existing towns and eat away at an open space buffer between Frisco and Dillon, a member of the county’s open space advisory board said in a previous interview.

Bob Berwyn can be reached at (970) 331-5996, or at bberwyn@summitdaily.com.