YVHA has plan in place to bring thousands of new homes online at Brown Ranch
New neighborhoods start with unseen essentials. At Brown Ranch, three miles west of Old Town Steamboat and six miles away from the ski resort, those rudiments will be key to transforming the 534 acres into a mixed-use district intended to house thousands.
The necessary infrastructure will include the typical components of the human urban experience — utilities, parks, sewers, sidewalks, streets and water lines — and the data conduits essential to modern digital habits.
Leah Wood, president of the Yampa Valley Housing Authority board, recognizes the Steamboat Springs community is intently interested in how those needs will be met.
“We certainly have a plan in place,” she said.
Half a millennium of history
The facilities necessary to support a population expected to exceed 6,000 people will be installed on a patch of Routt County that has historical significance to the Yampa Valley.
For at least 500 years, the land now known as Brown Ranch was a part of the seasonal homeland of the Núuchi-u, now commonly called the Ute Tribe. By the time the Great Depression hit in the 1930s, Brown Ranch was being cultivated. A.R. Brown, a local banker, and his family continued farming there until the 1980s, when the land began to fallow.
The shift away from agricultural use at Brown Ranch caught city planners’ attention. In 1995, the first Steamboat Springs Area Community Plan designated the western part of the urban area for future growth, including affordable housing, and the West Steamboat Springs Area Plan in 1999 specified that the area would be used to “bring about affordable housing for the working people of Steamboat Springs.”
Residents at the affordable housing development are expected to largely work in Steamboat Springs and, to get there or elsewhere in the region, they will likely travel on the two primary transportation corridors for Brown Ranch — U.S. Highway 40 and County Road 42.
More than 13,600 average daily trips are expected when phase one of the project is completed, according to the community development plan. That total will rise to at least 24,000 upon buildout.
U.S. 40 is already in need of upgrades. Serving as the main regional alternative to Interstate 70, the arterial is due to be widened as the highway already often experiences traffic clogs.
“By the time 2040 rolls around, that’ll have to be done whether Brown Ranch happens or not,” Yampa Valley Housing Authority Executive Director Jason Peasley said of the roadwork. “Part of it has to happen by 2030.”
Widening is not the only imperative. A traffic study completed in April indicated that four intersections along U.S. 40 will need improvements, including junctions of U.S. 40 and C.R. 42 and the intersections of Downhill Drive and Elk River Road and of Gloria Gossard Parkway and Downhill Drive, along with the ingress to Brown Ranch.
How maintenance of C.R. 42 will be handled is uncertain. Responsibility is currently divided between the city and Routt County, depending on the side of the road. The question is who should maintain it once Brown Ranch is developed and how often that maintenance will occur.
“The decision rests on what level of maintenance you want on that road,” Steamboat Springs Public Works Director Jon Snyder told a joint meeting between City Council members and Routt County Commissioners in May.
Movement around Brown Ranch would generally occur at lower speeds. There are no broad boulevards or avenues that would carry higher-velocity traffic contemplated at Brown Ranch. “The Brown Ranch street network is designed to prioritize safe pedestrian and bicycle circulation over vehicle convenience through the site,” according to the development plan.
Instead, the development will include three principal residential connector streets. The first will run east from C.R. 42 and intersect with a north-south connector situated about halfway across the development area. A third connector street will carry vehicles east from that north-south major street to a neighborhood west of Slate Creek. From that part of the development there will be a two-to-four lane exit road that will lead drivers to U.S. 40.
Bicyclists would have access to an east-west bike lane adjacent to traffic and a separate improved trail that would meander from C.R. 42 to an existing multimodal route. Pedestrians would be provided with several north-south greenways and a seasonal path, in addition to the improved trail shared with bike riders. There will also be a variety of secondary trails.
Planners suggest that four transit hubs, one for each neighborhood, will be included.
Electricity does not look to be a significant barrier to development of the affordable housing project.
“They are willing to provide the power,” Wood said, referring to the Yampa Valley Electric Association.
How that will be done — whether by connecting Brown Ranch to the existing grid that serves Steamboat, a microgrid or some combination of those two approaches — has not been determined.
Much of Brown Ranch’s electricity is likely to come from renewable sources. The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimated that, as of 2020, the average household in Colorado used about 225 million kilowatt hours of electricity per year.
As much as 198 million kilowatt hours of power at Brown Ranch each year is likely to come from residential and commercial solar power arrays, according to a February study prepared for YVHA by Page Southerland Page Inc., a Houston-based engineering firm.
That study also indicated that demand for electricity will be in part driven by personal vehicles. The Brown Ranch Concept Detailed Energy Master Plan predicts that the average household at the affordable housing project will eventually possess 0.5-2 electric conveyances.
Heat, obviously essential to homes during the Yampa Valley’s often harsh winters, will be provided by a geothermal system. At a February meeting the YVHA board agreed to install the apparatus, which will cost about $58 million, as a way of lowering energy costs to residents.
According to the Brown Ranch Concept Detailed Energy Master Plan, “geothermal systems are a well-established technology.” Because Steamboat Springs experiences cold winters and the ground does not efficiently retain heat during that season, additional tools to keep the ground temperature elevated have to be used. The energy master plan suggested that a solar-based system will work well for that purpose at Brown Ranch.
Water rights and treatment capacity
Water needed for domestic uses will come first from Fish Creek, as it now does for Steamboat Springs as a whole, and the Elk River if necessary. In 2020 the city obtained a permanent lease of water rights from the waterway north of Steamboat Springs, whose flows can be drawn from Steamboat Lake.
“That guarantees the city of Steamboat Springs more water than what we need,” Steamboat City Council member Michael Buccino said.
Buccino emphasized that it is because Steamboat Springs holds the necessary water rights that annexation of Brown Ranch is essential to seeing the affordable housing project made real.
“That’s the reason why we hold the cards in this game that we’re playing,” he explained. “The city of Steamboat, only, has enough water rights to provide housing for this many people.”
The biggest infrastructure need associated with water use at Brown Ranch — a new treatment plant — will not be needed until about 2030. At present Steamboat Springs’ treatment capacity is sufficient to serve 800 equivalent residential units, according to comments Peasley delivered at a February Brown Ranch Annexation Committee meeting.
Each equivalent residential unit, or ERU, can be envisioned as the equivalent of a 2,500-square-foot home that has three bedrooms, two bathrooms and a landscaped surrounding area. Brown Ranch is expected to include 1,550 ERUs at full buildout.
The Community Development Plan projects that all structures at Brown Ranch will include water-saving features, including low-flow fixtures, a ban on irrigation at private homes, xeriscaping, few hose bibs on the outsides of buildings, and on-demand water heaters, loop systems and on-demand water levers on faucets.
In addition to the future Elk River Treatment Plant, construction of a West Area Water Tank, a booster station for that tank and expansion of the Yampa Wells Treatment Plant will be necessary. The first and third of those projects have already commenced and the second is included in the city’s capital improvements plan.
Solid waste capacity
Landfill capacity is also unlikely to be a significant problem for the city if Brown Ranch is developed.
“I talked to Les Liman regarding the land that is left at Milner for a county dump,” Buccino said, referring to the owner of Twin Enviro Services, the landfill operator. “He assured me that he’s got 50 years or more left of land in his landfill right now. I don’t think waste disposal is an issue at all.”
Open space and parks
Although it will contain several thousand homes when completed, not all of the land at Brown Ranch can be developed. About 231 acres is either not physically practical for development or is outside the urban growth boundary.
There will be open space in or near each Brown Ranch neighborhood. Overall, if Brown Ranch is built with the density the development plan recommends, about 40% of the land within the project boundaries will be open space with the distribution varying by neighborhood. The planned open space is in addition to areas outside the urban growth boundary and parks.
“Neighborhood A,” which would be dominated by multifamily housing, would be constructed on relatively flat terrain next to U.S. 40. The plan contemplates a designated open space area west of residential structures and a neighborhood park adjacent to the highway.
Construction of a variety of residential structures, including both multifamily and single family and both detached and attached homes, would occur in “neighborhood B,” north of neighborhood A. There, gently rising hills dotted with oak trees will be evident and an open space area would be situated to the east. Residents would have a view over Slate Creek and access to a connection to a planned park.
“Neighborhood C” would also incorporate primarily multifamily housing. Located at the highest point at Brown Ranch, householders would have parks to both the east and the west. The existing log barn that signifies the agricultural heritage of the expanse would remain.
At “neighborhood D,” residents will live in 290-330 multifamily units and 170-230 single family homes. They will be close to parks on two sides of the zone. A nearby multi-use trail will connect to Sleeping Giant School.
Slate Creek also runs through Brown Ranch and, Peasley explained, has informed the YVHA’s ideas about where to leave property undeveloped.
“The vast majority of our open space and park land is surrounding that, so that we can give what is ultimately natural habitat as much breathing room and space as possible,” he said.
The portion of Brown Ranch that will not be built upon is also explained by the city’s demand that YVHA provide several community parks and a regional park.
The anticipated regional park is expected to be dedicated either on the northern edge or the southern side of the development. City leaders have expressed a preference for the 40-acre site on the northern perimeter, but whether that location turns out to be the choice depends on resolving any concerns expressed by Colorado Parks and Wildlife or Routt County.
“Parks writ large are essentially unresolved,” Peasley said.