Summit County to lease federal land to build housing under new Farm Bill rules

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
A pontoon boat crosses Dillon Reservoir in Summit County.

A potential lease between Summit County, the Town of Dillon and the U.S. Forest Service would be the first in the country to allow a local municipality to build affordable housing on National Forest land. 

The county’s pathway to use forest service land began with the 2018 Farm Bill which made it possible for the USFS to repurpose underused administrative sites for housing. The county then filed paperwork with the department in 2018.

Located at the current site of the forest service’s Dillon Work Center, Summit’s effort would culminate in 162 deed-restricted housing units. The units would house both partner’s employees as well as local residents who qualify. 

At the earliest, construction would begin in 2025, according to Summit County’s county commissioner Tamara Pogue. The county is waiting for an appraisal before finalizing details by the end of August.

Since the onset of the pandemic, real estate prices have skyrocketed across the state and, in particular, mountain communities. 

While Colorado is short 172,000 housing units, the residential properties that do exist in Summit have experienced significant surges in value – an average jump of at least 63% last year, according to the Colorado Department of Local Affairs. The Summit Daily reported that one plot of land saw an increase of 300% in that same timeframe. 

Pogue said such an extraordinary housing market calls for innovative measures.

“One of the challenges of mountain communities is that there's not a lot of available land. Many of us are nearing the point at which we're considered built out,” Pogue said. 

Pogue said she believes these partnerships between local and federal governments make a lot of sense, especially when the federal government owns a lot of the total available land in the area. 

Summit has been pushing for uses of federal land since it began the process to acquire land for affordable housing nearly two decades ago, which culminated in a purchase made possible by an affordable housing act signed by former president Barack Obama in 2016

The ongoing project is the first time the county has gone down the lease avenue, rather than an outright purchase.

“Everybody involved is committed to see this lease and project through. It's really the first of its kind,  where we're able to lease a Forest Service administrative site for in-kind contribution,” said David Boyd, public affairs officer for the White River National Forest.

That in-kind contribution includes housing for his own staff, something Boyd said his district is struggling to secure while dealing with the same housing needs as the rest of the county. This partnership, Boyd said, is part of the solution. 

Other areas look to follow suit, if Congress keeps the program going

While the White River National Forest, which makes up significant portions of Summit, Eagle, Pitkin and Garfield counties, is the first district in the country to work with local governments to ease the housing crunch through a potential lease, other communities with ample Forest Service land, looking to do the same, may have to wait for Congress to Act. The provision from the 2018 Farm Bill dries up Sept. 30.

Colorado Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet has teamed up with GOP Sen. Steve Daines of Montana to introduce the Forest Service Flexible Housing Partnerships Act, which would extend the program until 2028. Colorado Democratic Rep. Joe Neguse introduced the companion measure in the House, which also has Colorado GOP Rep. Lauren Boebert as a co-sponsor. 

“They’re not making any more real estate in any of these mountain communities, but I do think there might be the opportunity to get some bureaucratic red tape out of the way, do some things that would be really exciting in Colorado that other parts of the West can learn from,” said Bennet. He estimates there are about eight other sites in the state that they’re trying to get off the ground. 

Neguse said it’s a simple government reform that would not involve federal spending and which could “ultimately increase the availability of affordable housing.”

“It’s a common sense concept, which probably means that it's going to be an uphill battle convincing my colleagues here in Washington,” said Neguse. “But hope springs eternal.”

Right now, lawmakers are trying to get the measure included again in the next Farm Bill, currently being negotiated in Congress. Bennet, who has been through a couple of these negotiations, said the terms are still being worked out.

Still, there is one change that lawmakers hope to get, based on feedback from Colorado, which would be to extend how long a lease can last.

Anna Bengtson, who oversees the transfer of White River National Forest land, said the lease is not unlike the ones the forest service has with the county’s four ski resorts, which allows them to operate on federal land each year. 

“It is probably the closest parallel to what we are considering as this lease under the Farm Bill leasing legislation,” Bengtson said. 

The only difference is the lease for the county, as outlined in federal guidelines, is up for renewal after about 50 years. 

The timeline is an issue for some. It might also be responsible for preventing more counties across the country from following the same procedure. 

“Typically, the [2018] Farm Bill only allows leasing for 49 years or less to do a housing project. As expensive as that is in our valley, we'd like to see the flexibility of the bill be allowed to change that out to 99 years – that would make it much more palatable,” Eagle County county manager Jeff Shroll said.

Eagle County has been in touch with congressional delegates to propose adjustments that would take the timeline barriers into account. The current language in the bill would allow leases to last as long as 100 years.

Pogue is optimistic about future renegotiations within the current timeframe.

“Given that the shelf life of most housing is less than 50 years, I think that's a bridge we can cross when we get there,” Pogue said.

With ongoing affordable housing talks taking place, Eagle County is a few steps behind Summit in taking advantage of forest service land. Still, the county has made significant headway in a partnership effort with Pitkin County in El Jebel. 

Shroll said the county also has eyes on some potential properties along the Eagle river. Since the process to secure a lease is slow, similar efforts to what’s underway in El Jebel and Dillon may be a few years out. 

Until then, the rest of the state, as well as the country, have Summit’s pilot program to look at as they try to tackle the nationwide housing crisis head on.

CPR's Caitlyn Kim contributed to this report.