Eagle River Water & Sanitation District planning 21 employee homes | VailDaily.com

Eagle River Water & Sanitation District planning 21 employee homes

EAGLE COUNTY — It's important for those who work in the public-utility business to be close to their jobs. The Vail Valley's primary water and electricity providers are working on plans to help more employees stay closer to where they work.

The Eagle River Water & Sanitation District is working on a plan that would add 21 units to its current 39-unit inventory of workforce housing units. There's still a long way to go and a lot of hurdles to clear before construction starts. County approval is needed to create one parcel out of the current four and change the zoning. The district's elected board of directors also needs to appropriate a still-uncertain amount of money for the project. But district general manager Linn Brooks said construction could start next year.

As currently envisioned, the project would be made up of six one-bedroom units, 13 two-bedroom units and one duplex.

The project — across the Eagle River from the district's Edwards wastewater treatment plant — will have a number of energy-efficiency features. The property will also be landscaped, so there's minimal untreated runoff into the river. Brooks said the project also will help restore the streambank in the area.

Those units, like other district-controlled units, will be available for either rent or sale.

Brooks said rentals to employees are at below-market rates. There's a deed restriction on the units that sell, with the district having the first opportunity to re-purchase those homes.

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Keeping good people

Brooks said the district has always re-purchased units since the housing program was created in the 1990s.

Besides the units it controls, the district also has a loan program so employees can buy other homes. That loan program helps cover down payments, with the loan to be repaid either after 15 years or upon the sale of the home. Interest on the loan is tied to appreciation on the home.

Brooks said the district's program has helped employees meet their housing needs through sometimes-long careers.

"We've had employees come in early in their careers and rent a small unit from us," Brooks said. "If they subsequently get married, we'll help them move into a bigger (home). When they start to have kids, maybe we can help them buy a deed-restricted unit."

And the district wants people to stay for long careers.

"We have employees who are highly skilled," Brooks said. "It's important to have good longevity and institutional knowledge."

It's also essential to have front-line employees live close to their jobs.

Longtime Vail resident Bob Armour was recently appointed to fill a vacancy on the district board. Armour acknowledged he's still learning about district operations, but he agreed that it's essential to have people close to their jobs.

"If something goes wrong with basic utilities — gas, electricity and water — it can be a big problem real quick, especially when it's 10 below (zero)," Armour said. "Utilities really value and understand the critical employee."

Armour said at one point last winter, a snowplow hit an electric junction box, knocking out power to an entire West Vail neighborhood. Crews from Holy Cross Energy were quickly on the scene and had power restored before the pipes froze in any homes.

Living close to jobs

Holy Cross Energy has a policy that front-line workers live no more than a 30-minute drive from their dispatch points.

That utility, which serves almost all of the Vail Valley, also provides service in most of Garfield County, all of Pitkin County and parts of Gunnison and Mesa counties.

Holy Cross Energy Vice President of Human Resources John Rowley said that utility has about 10 units each in the Eagle River and Roaring Fork valleys. Holy Cross employees in those areas also receive housing allowances.

Rowley said Holy Cross — a not-for-profit utility with an elected board of directors — is re-working its homebuyer assistance program and is rolling its housing allowances into employees' base pay.

Holy Cross is also working on building more housing for its employees, although the planning isn't as far along as the water and sanitation district's.

Like the water and sanitation district, people who work for Holy Cross have specific skills and knowledge.

"It takes a lot of time to train (people)," Rowley said. "We want to retain them and have a place for them to live so they want to stay."

Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930, smiller@vaildaily.com and @scottnmiller.

No break on tap fees

You’d think the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District could give itself a break on housing it builds. You’d be wrong.

District General Manager Linn Brooks said the district is actually just the provider of water and sewer services. Tap fees are set by the Upper Eagle Regional Water Authority, an associated, but separate, entity.

But, Brooks said, tap fees are based on home sizes, meaning a one-bedroom condo pays proportionally much less than, say, a large home in Beaver Creek.