Water, housing among slew of legislative priorities discussed by Summit County leaders, state lawmakers

Speaker-designate Julie McCluskie and Sen.-elect Dylan Roberts pledge to work with commissioners as legislative session begins

Senator-elect Dylan Roberts, left, listens to Julie McCluskie, who is set to become the next speaker for the Colorado House of Representatives, discuss legislative priorities for Summit County and other mountain communities during a county commissioner meeting on Jan. 3, 2023.
Robert Tann/Summit Daily News

Water infrastructure and affordable housing were among some of the top priorities discussed by the Summit Board of County Commissioners and two state lawmakers as they prepare to kick off the 2023 legislative session. 

Democrats Julie McCluskie, who represents House District 13, and Dylan Roberts, who will represent Senate District 8 once sworn-in next week, told commissioners during a Jan. 3 meeting they are working on a slate of bills aimed at helping mountain communities. Both elected officials will represent Summit County in the upcoming legislature.

“We’re talking about many of the same things we were last session,” said McCluskie, who will lead a supermajority of Democrats in the Colorado House of Representatives once sworn-in as speaker next week.

McCluskie said while action on affordable housing is underway, thanks in-part to the $400 million in state funding for the issue that was passed by the legislature last year, actual projects remain “sticks in the ground” as that funding is dished out to communities. 

With new state grants for affordable housing initiatives, Roberts said “we’re going to start seeing those dollars reach our communities in the coming years.”

Environmental needs could also be the “centerpiece of our policy agenda for this next session and certainly beyond,” McCluskie said. 

As climate change fuels droughts across the western United States, McCluskie said more robust action on the issue of water will be crucial for years to come. 

Roberts, who will also serve as chair of the Agriculture & Natural Resources Committee, also said he would have a major focus on water policies this year, which he called “the top issue facing our state” in the coming decades.

“Summit County is the pinch point of this — where you have demands literally from the Front Range and the Western Slope,” he said. “You’re kind of at the forefront of it here in the headwaters.”

Other issues raised by lawmakers included supporting rural healthcare — specifically behavioral health — as well as wildfire mitigation and the struggles of obtaining insurance for fires. 

Summit County Commissioner Tamara Pogue listens as Senator-elect Dylan Roberts, set to represent the Senate District 8, discuss issues affecting his region — which includes Summit County.
Robert Tann/Summit Daily News

Commissioners, in response, thanked McCluskie and Roberts for their support but also acknowledged challenges ahead.

Summit County Commissioner Josh Blanchard said county residents have increasingly raised concerns about not being able to get wildfire insurance for their homes. He also questioned what more could be done to manage water quality and supply amid rapid population growth in the state. 

“One of the things that keeps me up at night is this tension between increased development, particularly on the Front Range,” said Blanchard, who also sits on several water boards. “Where is this water going to come from?”

Commissioner Elisabeth Lawrence said she wants the state’s Department of Early Childhood — established by lawmakers last summer in preparation for the state’s new universal preschool law set to go into effect this year — to not just focus on schools districts but other programs as well.

“That doesn’t always support working families,” Lawrence said. “We need to make sure we have continuous care throughout the summer, before and after school.”

Commissioner Tamara Pogue said she felt some state law requirements around accessing affordable housing funds could have “unintended consequences” for building affordable units in Summit County. 

For example, several projects are unable to get off the ground due to not having the required access to water and sewage infrastructure, said Pogue, who estimates this has stalled more than 1,000 units from being built. 

“Some of the proposals, I fear, would make the affordability of these projects just inexistent,” Pogue said. 

She raised other concerns with proposals to tie affordable housing to other needs, such as requiring units be near bus services. While Pogue said she supports the idea in theory, it would be an unrealistic mandate for the county to meet, she said.

“I think some of the very concrete details I’ve heard thus far are troubling,” Pogue said, “and will not help us meet any of the goals that we all share.” 

To remedy some issues, Pogue said she wanted to see the legislature support a fast-track system for water and infrastructure projects that the county is currently waiting on and which is holding up housing development, she said.

Despite the challenges, Pogue credited the bills championed by McCluskie and Roberts for bringing more counties into the affordable housing conversation. In particularly, she referenced House Bills 1271 and 1304, which created several affordable housing grant programs and were sponsored by McCluskie and Roberts respectively.

“It would be truly a shame to see any of that work step backwards,” Pogue said.

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