Colorado mayors criticize Poliss sweeping land-use reform plan

Mayors from several Colorado cities criticized Gov. Jared Polis’ sweeping land-use reform bill Thursday as state overreach, with some floating lawsuits to block what they describe as infringement on local control.

“I think that’s something that cities and the (Colorado Municipal League) would certainly have to consider because local control is sacred,” said Arvada Mayor Marc Williams. “I really see this as the camel’s nose into the tent. So I think we have to be aggressive in our opposition.”

The Colorado Municipal League, which represents the state’s cities and towns, has publicly declared its intent to fight any land-use reform for months. When the measure — which would significantly reshape single-family zoning in a bid to increase density and middle-housing stock — was unveiled Wednesday, the league’s executive director called it “breathtaking overreach.”

Polis, legislative leaders and the broad coalition of housing, business and environmental groups backing the plan say the bill is vital to build more housing, lower costs, preserve water and cut down on pollution. While House Democrats have introduced — and passed — a slew of pro-tenant bills to slow evictions and cap costs, zoning reform represents a long-term effort that would involve the state stepping into what’s traditionally been local matters.

The governor and the reform’s supporters say that’s necessary because the housing crisis is of statewide concern. The state is short tens of thousands of housing units, and zoning reform, they say, will help the state grow more wisely into the future while helping to fill the hole of missing housing. Beyond its changes to zoning codes and by-right building, the measure would also require regular housing needs assessments to gauge what type of housing is needed.

Local government officials, though, say they’re already working on addressing the crisis themselves and that a one-size-fits-all approach isn’t the way forward. Several said they’re still working through the 106-page bill to fully gauge its impacts but are already opposed.

“All of a sudden the state legislature in their wisdom is saying, ‘You’re not doing a good enough job, you don’t know what you’re doing, we do, we’re going to tell you what to do,’” said Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers, whose city just completed its own land-use reform. “I just resent it. Most large cities have been going through processes very similar to what Colorado Springs has done. But apparently, we’re too stupid to understand the need for affordable housing and only the state understands what we need to do.”

City officials in Denver were more open to the reforms. The city has taken steps in recent years to both increase housing density in single-family areas — in the form of neighborhood-wide rezonings to allow property owners to build ADUs — and to mandate developers build more affordable housing.

The Expanding Housing Affordability policy, adopted by the City Council last summer, mandates that any new development of 10 more units must set aside at least 8% of its units as income-restricted housing or pay steep fees in lieu of that construction.

A statewide upzoning mandate could mean needing to revisit and update that policy, City Council President Jamie Torres said. If developers have the right to turn single-family lots into six-plexes, they might be able to duck under the city’s affordability rules and not provide income-restricted housing. Torres also worries upzoning could lead to a rush on cheaper properties in low-income neighborhoods, thereby driving gentrification. That’s a chief concern of affordability advocates, too, who want more tools to ensure current residents aren’t displaced.

Torres’s mind, she said, goes to all the work that would need to be done to implement this law at the city level, adjusting long-range plans, permitting processes and more.

But Torres, who represents west Denver’s District 3, also welcomes the state taking a stab at addressing the regional need for affordable housing.

“You know where it has my attention is in really forcing this conversation in communities that have not wanted to have it,” Torres said. “My district is right next to Lakewood which has put limits on growth and that puts pressure on everyone else. Denver can’t be the only ones trying to build affordability and we’re probably not the only ones but we need it at scale.”

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock will leave office this summer due to term limits but has had a front-row seat as the city and state’s housing needs have grown over the last decade. His administration greatly increased city spending on housing development but has struggled to contain the problem.

Hancock, in a statement Thursday, said he welcomes the governor getting involved and appreciates the proposal’s focus on housing density but said using land use to drive housing policy is “complicated.”

“It’s important to have local perspectives in these conversations to reflect the range of experiences being faced by local governments throughout the state, and we look forward to digging into the details of the proposal and providing any feedback Denver may have to Gov. Polis and the bill sponsors,” Hancock said.

Other mayors said they’re also still sorting through the details. Such is the case in Vail, said Mayor Kim Langmaid. But based on what she’s seen already, she said she was particularly concerned about the bill allowing accessory-dwelling units and middle-housing — structures like carriage houses, townhomes, duplexes and six-plexes — to be built by property owners. That could further feed into the town’s short-term rental market, she said.

The bill’s supporters have stressed that local governments can take action to limit short-term rentals, but Langmaid said Vail’s situation was trickier than that. The town needs to both support tourism while keeping locals housed.

“It’s very complex,” she said. “Our community is built on tourism and being able to rent out units, and we feel like we have enough of them already. We can’t handle anymore.”

She and other mayors said Colorado communities are too varied to legislate them the same. Vail’s needs differ from Aurora’s or Colorado Spring’s. As Polis and reform supporters — some of whom are mayors and county commissioners — have noted, the bill would allow local governments to adopt minimum-standard codes to their existing regulations (and if they don’t, a more rigid code developed by the state’s Department of Local Affairs would be instituted for them).

But that “flexible” option, as it’s been called, did little to assuage Williams’ concerns, he said.

“The council is united on this,” the Arvada mayor said. “We do see it as an impact on our ability to make our own decisions.”

Jason Gray, the mayor of Castle Rock, said he and his city council have already sent the governor a letter laying out their opposition to zoning changes. He, like other mayors, said he appreciated the need to address housing. But he felt the proposal was an overreach, and he said he’d “be surprised if there wasn’t litigation” to contest the bill, should it be passed in a manner that local governments feel oversteps constitutional home-rule protections.

Suthers, whose tenure as Colorado Springs mayor ends in June, agreed.

“I can’t speak for the next mayor or the new council,” he said. “But we have been very, very diligent historically in protecting our home-rule powers as a home-rule city, and I would be shocked if our next mayor and our next city council aren’t vehement about protecting our constitutional home-rule powers.”

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