Opinion | Get the facts: Locals’ housing at County Commons | SummitDaily.com

Opinion | Get the facts: Locals’ housing at County Commons

By Karn Stiegelmeier
Summit County commissioner
Summit County commissioner Karn Stiegelmeier

We have experienced rapid changes in recent decades in Summit County. In my 11 years as a county commissioner, I have focused on the restoration and preservation of our environment and finding ways to support locals, who often struggle under the financial strains of living in our beautiful but expensive community. We have made great progress in both realms. Nonetheless, we have continuing challenges ahead in protecting our environmental assets and in keeping local workers in Summit County.

There has been considerable commentary recently on our current effort to provide options for senior and workforce housing at the County Commons on a 6-acre plot of land known as the Fiester parcel, which requires a controversial process of removing the conservation easement. I firmly believe this is the right thing to do as part of our ongoing work to address the housing crisis in Summit County. I also firmly believe that responsible development of this parcel will not represent a backtracking on Summit County’s commitment to conservation of our natural environment.

Summit County has identified the Fiester parcel as an ideal location for a housing development that contains a mix of residences for local seniors and workers. Its proximity to the Summit County Community and Senior Center, medical campus, existing residential neighborhoods and Summit Stage bus service make it an excellent location. Summit County has no dedicated senior housing or assisted living facilities. Yet our aging population is projected to grow at an unprecedented rate. By 2030, Colorado’s 65-plus population will be 77% larger than it was in 2015. We all know people who have left Summit County because of oxygen needs at elevation, but many of us can and will age at this elevation.

The history of the County Commons campus and the conservation easement on the Fiester parcel is important. Summit County acquired 113.5 acres of U.S. Forest Service land as part of a land trade that today houses the County Commons, library, Community and Senior Center, ambulance, medical campus, animal shelter, Summit Stage, 911 Center and other state and county service facilities.

 At the time the campus was first zoned for development, Summit County was responding to the 1990s workforce housing crisis. County leaders identified a portion of the land on the campus for housing purposes in the location known today as the Fiester parcel. But because Bill’s Ranch residents had concerns about workforce housing next to their neighborhood, the workforce housing plot was moved farther east, and the county commissioners placed a conservation easement on the 6-acre parcel to provide a buffer between the Bill’s Ranch neighborhood and the workforce housing neighborhood. This was our first workforce housing development. Today, the Ophir Mountain neighborhood is much appreciated.

Summit County has a robust and widely recognized open-space preservation program. Since the program’s inception in 1995, we have protected over 17,000 acres. The criteria considered for purchases of open space include recreation access to federal forests, agricultural values, critical wildlife habitat, wetlands and scenic view corridors. The Fiester parcel was not purchased with Summit County Open Space funds, and is not part of the county’s open space portfolio. It was obtained by the county as part of the larger Forest Service land trade. The Fiester parcel does not meet the criteria for open space protection or conservation easements. It is a flat parcel, surrounded by development. This summer, the Colorado Department of Transportation will begin construction on the Colorado Highway 9 gap project adjacent to the County Commons, widening the roadway into four lanes and adding a large roundabout at the entrance to County Commons, which will flank the Fiester parcel’s northern boundary.

Summit County has repeatedly proposed amendments to this conservation easement by transferring it to adjacent land that does provide conservation values, including access to the recpath, Miner’s Creek Trail, Forest Service lands, diverse plants and wildlife habitat. These conversations with Continental Divide Land Trust and Bill’s Ranch residents date back over 10 years. This process with the Fiester parcel does not set any new precedent. There are established legal procedures in place for the removal or transfer of any conservation easement. Just a few years ago, the Continental Divide Land Trust transferred a conservation easement to allow for the realignment of Highway 9, and it was viewed as a win for enhanced conservation just as our proposal should be. Unfortunately, there is no way to simply transfer the easement because of statutory changes made in 2019, so we will have to go through a process of judicially removing the easement prior to any compensation or transfer to another location.

The time has come to move forward. We do not need a 6-acre buffer from workforce housing. The proposed project does include a planted berm as a smaller buffer. Let’s protect some lands with real conservation values and use this site in the middle of existing development to provide housing for our local seniors and workers.

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