Polis’s sweeping effort to reform Colorado zoning set for changes

Gov. Jared Polis’ marquee zoning reform bill received its first public hearing before legislators Thursday, a 12-hour marathon meeting that featured a revolving door of experts, local government officials, housing advocates and residents jostling to change one of the most far-reaching measures being considered in the Capitol this year.

Change is certain: The bill’s sponsor, Commerce City Democrat Sen. Dominick Moreno, circulated a 21-bulletpoint list of amendments before the hearing began that would tweak affordability, the bill’s impact on rural-resort towns and density requirements.

Those changes, which a Senate committee will likely consider next week, may satisfy concerns of housing advocates that the bill doesn’t do enough to ensure new development is affordable. But they’re unlikely to appease local government officials, who have become the bill’s most fervent critics. SB23-213 proposes to reshape the state’s locally set zoning rules in a bid to build more housing, encourage density and the use of public transit, and, ideally, reduce the cost of apartments and homes.

“To date, despite the best efforts of many local officials, Colorado’s current, all-local approach has failed to resolve our housing crisis,” said Brian Connolly, a land use attorney and co-founder of the Colorado Housing Affordability Project, whose platform is similar to the bill’s provisions. “Every other state in the nation that has faced an affordability crisis has employed some statewide controls to create a level playing field between jurisdictions, ensure that local efforts to encourage affordability are effective and address regional housing needs.”

But the bill has received a much frostier reception from local governments. A battery of mayors and councilmembers from across the state — Crested Butte, Westminster, Avon, Colorado Springs, Moreno’s own Commerce City — testified against it Thursday, asking that it either be gutted or demolished entirely. The measure would clear the way for home- and property owners to build accessory dwelling units and duplexes through sixplexes on single-family lots, plus encourage dense building in transit areas.

The state-level requirements, local government officials told lawmakers Thursday, represent state overreach and, some alleged, violate Colorado’s constitution. Moreno is considering amendments to limit the type of middle housing that could be built on single-family lots to fourplexes (rather than six, as the bill currently allows) and loosening restrictions on rural-resort towns. Local officials from those areas have already announced their opposition to the bill, and the senator who represents the skeptical towns of Vail and Avon, Democratic Sen. Dylan Roberts, is a key vote on the committee that will decide the bill’s fate.

The changes being circulated wouldn’t address local governments’ broader charge of state overreach, officials said Thursday. Some questioned how, in an increasingly water-conscious West, the state proposed supporting a crop of new housing. The mayor of Breckenridge, Eric Mamula, told lawmakers that the bill would “ruin my town,” given that it would allow for more smaller units to be built, which in turn could feed into the short-term rental problem.

“In terms of amendments, does anything get us there? Only if the first one is to eliminate all preemptions and mandates in the bill and start talking about partnership instead of preemption,” Kevin Bommer, the executive director of the Colorado Municipal League, testified Thursday. “This should not be adversarial; this should be collaborative.”

Bommer and other opponents have promised litigation that would tie the law up “for years” if it  pre-empts local control.

Supporters, like Connolly, argue housing is an issue of statewide concern and thus the path is clear for the state to intervene. Polis has said the bill still maintains local control: Cities still have some authority over how new development looks, and they would be allowed to configure state-level zoning standards into their own codes (if they don’t, though, the state will slap model codes upon them).

Housing advocates took a more measured tone in their feedback Thursday. Many of them — like the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless and Enterprise Community Partners — have been involved in deliberations on the bill for months and remain broadly supportive of it. Still, they remained concerned about its potential impacts on affordability and gentrification.

The bill seeks to encourage more dense building in certain key areas. But that would make that land more valuable, which in turn may drive up prices and displace the communities who live there. Middle housing — duplexes and townhomes — could be built more easily under the bill, but would they be affordable or luxury units? As it’s written, the bill acknowledges that concern, to a degree: It would require local governments undertake regular housing assessments and, in them, to select anti-displacement and affordability strategies from a menu of options that will be drafted by state officials.

“Housing supply alone will not solve the affordability crisis,” Cathy Alderman, chief communications and public policy officer for the homeless coalition, said Thursday. “It might create more housing, but there will be no guarantee that housing will be affordable unless we intentionally incorporate affordability and anti-displacement principles and strategies into this bill.”

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