Along Colorado’s I-70 mountain corridor, the hills are alive with the sound of construction

The team building the Summit Sky Ranch development on the northern edge of Silverthorne is casting the project as a next-generation mountain luxury community.

No more sprawling homes on big, isolated properties. The residences top out at 3,500 square feet. Lots range from 0.3 acres to 1.5. Loads of shared amenities have been built or are on their way including a community center with a pool and tap beer and wine, a 20-acre public park along Colo. 9 and a trails network tying everything together. Even if many people who buy the 240 homes being built there don’t end up living there full time, the aim is to create connective tissue that makes Summit Sky Ranch more than a vacation getaway spot.

“We want everyone here to know each other,” said Matt Mueller, who is managing the development on behalf of owner Tom Everist. “The original model was really that sort of second home location, the old model of the mountains. We thought that time had passed and our market research was showing that.”

Carrying out that vision required going through a controversial rezoning a few years ago. When the 416-acre property was first annexed into Silverthorne in 2007 plans called for just 82 homes. But progress is chugging along now. More than 80 percent of the infrastructure has been built and 69 homes have been completed and sold. Another 40 homes are under construction now.

“We expect build-out by 2023 if market conditions hold,” Mueller said earlier this month. Local planning officials “are processing, at minimum, four permits per week from us,”

Summit Sky Ranch is not the only project keeping local administrators busy.

This is one of the many homes at the new Summit Sky Ranch housing development on Sept. 5, 2018 in Silverthorne.

The Summit County building inspection department issued a record high 852 permits in 2017, according to chief building official Scott Hoffman. The department serves unincorporated areas (including the Keystone and Copper Mountain ski resorts), the towns of Silverthorne, Dillon and Montezuma and performs electrical services for Frisco. Those permits represented $244.5 million in projects, also a record and a 147 percent increase over the $99 million value of projects permitted in 2015.

And 2018 is on pace to be even busier by some metrics. Through the end of September last year, Hoffman’s department had issued 582 permits for more than $153 million worth of work. Through Tuesday this week, it’s issued 641 permits for $126 million worth of work. The department performed 11,889 inspections through September 2017, and more than 12,100 so far this year.

Much like the growth seen along the Front Range during the ongoing economic expansion, the work going on in Summit County today will change the faces of local communities for generations to come. In Silverthorne in particular, development themes similar to those playing out in metro Denver are being embraced: specifically, more density and an emphasis on walk-ability.

Aside from Summit Sky Ranch, assistant town manager Mark Leidal points to two projects that excite him: the Fourth Street Crossing mixed-use development near Silverthorne’s core and the town-backed Smith Ranch Neighborhood that is slated to bring at least 180 units of workforce housing to the north side of town. Sixty units are under construction there now.

Fourth Street Crossing, which is redeveloping an entire block between Third and Fourth streets along Colo. 9, will include a 100-room hotel, a 26,000-square-foot market hall and for-sale condos and townhomes along with retail uses, according to information posted to the project website by developer Milender White.

That fits with the town’s 2014 comprehensive plan update that called for creation of “a downtown, pedestrian-friendly walk-able environment focusing on the Blue River,” Liedal said. The project sits adjacent to the Silverthorne Performing Arts Center, a $9 million facility that opened last year and is “really starting to invigorate the downtown and serve as a catalyst for redevelopment,” according to the administrator.

That and other private sector redevelopment projects on tap in Silverthorne — including potential changes to the town’s trademark outlet mall — has Liedal hopeful the town is shedding its skin as Summit County’s bedroom community for people working at the ski resorts and at businesses in Breckenridge, Dillon and elsewhere into a tourist destination it its own right.

“A lot of people who come to the mountains, they end up passing through Silverthorne one way or another,” he said. “We want to make sure we we are able to take advantage of our proximity to the Front Range.”

A similar thought process is in play across the Clear Creek County line in Georgetown. There passersby on I-70 would be hard pressed not to notice the new construction taking place between the highway and the town’s namesake lake.

The project, dubbed Bighorn Crossing, will bring 64 townhomes and 70 plus apartments or condos to the strip of previously county-owned land. A micro-hotel and new brewery is also in the offing, according to Kurt Soukup, the developer building the residential component.

Bighorn Crossing’s two- and three-bedroom townhomes, around 35 percent of which have already been sold, start at $350,000 and go up to $410,000. Soukup views his project as a more affordable second home or even a primary residence option for people who work in Denver but want a piece of the mountain life. He notes Georgetown is less than a hour from downtown Denver, unlike places on the west side of the Eisenhower Tunnel.

“I am interested in attainable housing for people,” said Soukup, a Fort Collins native who recently moved back to Colorado after 25 years away. “To me, the million-dollar properties in Vail and these other locations are just too far out of reach for a normal person who is living in Denver.”

Soukup is working with Denver-based 359 Design and using modular construction to build the townhomes. It’s a means to keep costs down, ensure quality and speed delivery. After breaking ground in May, the 11-unit first phase is expected to be completed next month. The entire townhome component could be complete sometime next year, Soukup said. The apartment or condo component will follow.

“It’s a lot of extra population that is coming into the town,” Soukup said of Georgetown, a community of about 1,000 people. “It just helps the economy there. Personally, I think there is going to be a big need for restaurants, bars.”

As with Silverthorne, the private-sector investment in Georgetown was preceded by public-sector investment. In Clear Creek County, the big path-clearing project was Colorado Department of Transportation’s $72-million I-70 Mountain Express Lane between Empire and Idaho Springs that opened in late 2015.

That project not only eased congestion on the interstate during the limited number of days is open, but also got traffic off some Clear Creek County roads, said Tim Mauck, chairman of the county board of commissioners. Mauck said with the Eisenhower Tunnel forming a “psychological barrier” for some visitors, people are starting to discover Clear Creek County. He pointed to a list of projects — including a low-income apartment project in Idaho Springs that received tax credits through Colorado Housing and Financing Authority earlier this year — as ways the county is growing and becoming more accessible as a place to live.

That has led to positives — particularly for local businesses — but also challenges. Specifically, Mauck points to the crowds that flock to county trailheads on weekends, with cars regularly lining roadsides when lots fill up.

“I think that is something that we are really going to have to begin to manage,” he said.

Framer Abel Sarillano, right, works on the framing of a new large home under construction at the new Summit Sky Ranch housing development on Sept. 5, 2018 in Silverthorne.

Back in Summit County, the staff at the nonprofit High Country Conservation Center say the need for their services such as recycling and home energy audits are rising with the number of visitors and full-time residents in the county. (County statistics show there are now more than 30,600 people living there full time, up from 28,000 in 2010.)

Executive Director Jennifer Schenk said she is concerned about how increased vehicle traffic and energy use are impacting the mountain environment even as towns and businesses there set ambitious sustainable energy goals.

Low snowpack and the risk of wildfire weigh on the minds of many in the county.

“The climate impacts are becoming incredibly visible,” Schenk said. “Our snow is melting earlier every year and coming later. Dillon Reservoir is the lowest I remember ever seeing it.”

For Summit County Commissioner Karn Stiegelmeier one of the biggest issues exacerbated by growth is one metro-area leaders are very familiar with: A lack of affordable housing, and by extension a lack of workers available to fill jobs. Some restaurants have had to resort to closing some days each week because they don’t have the employees to stay open, she said.

“We have this trifecta of expense with cost of housing, cost of child care and the cost of health care,” she said. “And those three things make it really difficult to afford to live here.”

The county is bringing its resources to bear on the issue. It is partnering with Vail Resorts, the county authority and developer Gorman and Co. to build a 196-unit affordable rental housing project in Keystone. Work began there last month. A neighborhood affordable project will begin accepting a second round of resident applications for its lottery process on Oct. 2.

Of course, the other inescapable side effect of growth is traffic. Both Stiegelmeier and Clear Creek County’s Mauck are hoping for voters’ help with that issue in November. They are supporting the “Let’s Go Colorado” sales tax hike that officials project will generate $8 billion for city and county road projects and $3 billion for multimodal and transit projects in Colorado over the next 20 years.

“Traffic is terrible,” Stiegelmeier said. “(This measure) has good local funding and good multimodal funding so we can invest more in our transit system and bikeways and rec paths, so it’s not just all about cars.”

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