Opinion | Bruce Butler: It’s time to cut bait on Lake Hill housing

One of my perpetual frustrations with government at all levels — but even worse at the federal level — is its inability to pivot from a previous plan or decision, even when information, facts, and circumstances have changed. There was no better example of this than the COVID-19 reaction that started with two weeks of shutdown to “stop the spread” and the manic purchase of bleach, topical disinfectants and hand sanitizer, only to later understand that surface disinfection was not the problem. Instead, it was aerosol transmission, which led to social distancing masking, and other regulatory hysteria in addition to disinfecting anything and everything for the next two years.

It is government’s reflexive nature to double-down on previous decisions, even when new and better information requires a change in plans or policy. This inherent tendency inevitably leads to throwing good money after bad. 

During my years as a congressional staffer, I cannot count the times that various interest groups came into the office and essentially argued that $1.75 million of taxpayer money would be wasted if the Congress did not spend another $10 to $100 million to justify the initial investment. Clearly, no right-minded person supports wasting $1.75 million, so exponentially more money must be spent on a misguided, or simply bad, idea in order to be fiscally responsible! This is one of the ways our country has amassed a $30 trillion national debt. When you are trapped at the bottom of a pit, stop digging.

Along these lines, I was disappointed to read over the past week that the board of county commissioners has decided to push forward unilaterally on development of the Lake Hill workforce housing project. There is a reason why this project has not moved forward for nearly a decade in the middle of a housing boom. There are sound reasons why the Town of Frisco has had to back away from the project, even though I have no doubt the Frisco Town Council and senior town staff unanimously support opportunities to develop more workforce housing, in principle. The flaw with the Lake Hill site is that it is financially and logistically prohibitive to develop.

I don’t dispute that Lake Hill would be the most scenic workforce housing in the United States nor question the intentions of those who pursued the land exchange with the federal government for the Lake Hill site. In fact, I think land exchanges can be viable options for workforce housing. The problem with the Lake Hill site is it sits on a steep slope, which requires extensive and expensive utility and earthwork to develop.

Multiple millions of dollars must be spent before the first building could be constructed. The site sits downhill from Frisco’s waste water treatment plant which means all of the sewage would have to be pumped uphill. Frisco’s wastewater and domestic water supply systems would have to be expanded at considerable expense — not to mention the cost of improving the surrounding road infrastructure and the resulting traffic problems.

Increasing the density of workforce housing projects is essential to making them “affordable.” However, in the case of Lake Hill, the 436 units previously planned were already a logistical problem. Adding another 100-plus units to the site only exacerbates the utilities and infrastructure problems. Forget the cost of building free-standing water and wastewater treatment plants to serve Lake Hill, does anybody think that Denver Water is going to happily welcome another wastewater treatment plant discharging into Lake Dillon?

The $1.75 million spent eight years ago to acquire the Lake Hill site and the undeniable need for more workforce and affordable housing do not justify spending tens of millions more dollars on a site that does not work for its intended use. Perhaps the Lake Hill site could be traded again for a more suitable development site? I urge the county commissioners to reconsider what it would really cost to develop Lake Hill and instead work with other county stakeholders to develop workforce housing on more feasible sites, like the old Silverthorne Elementary School site on Brian Avenue in Silverthorne or on a portion of the Frisco Peninsula. More workforce housing is good, but where and how it is achieved has got to make sense.

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