Colorado lawmakers are preparing to gut Gov. Jared Polis’s sweeping land-use reform bill to remove provisions that would reshape single-family zoning in the state, proposals that have split Senate Democrats and drawn howls from local governments.
The bill, SB23-213, has already been significantly amended from its original intent of reshaping single-family zoning across the state and allowing for more middle-housing development and the by-right building of accessory dwelling units.
The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Dominick Moreno of Commerce City, is now circulating a further amendment that would entirely strip the bill of those provisions. If passed, it would mean the bill would no longer affect single-family zoning, according to a copy of the language obtained by The Denver Post. It would swap mandates that local governments adopt pro-density zoning standards for a requirement that local governments perform assessments of their housing needs, nixing provisions that opponents had decried as infringements on local control
“If I’m on the committee and those things are not addressed, it dies,” Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat, said Tuesday morning of the bill’s proposed preemptions. Zenzinger’s support is vital to advance the bill through the Senate’s Appropriations Committee; she said the amendment had earned her support.
The amendment is set to be considered — and likely passed — Wednesday morning in order to get the bill through a key committee vote. If the changes are adopted, the bill would become a shadow of the sweeping reform that Polis unveiled to great fanfare in late March.
Instead of remaking how the state approaches land use, it would instead direct the state and its various cities to undertake fact-finding missions to determine housing needs, with a particular eye toward affordability and housing lower-income Coloradans. Cities’ housing needs plans would be incorporated into their broader master plans.
The amendment would require the state to create a menu of affordability strategies — like eliminating parking requirements, enacting inclusionary zoning policies or cutting certain fees — to facilitate cities’ plans to address the needs identified in their assessments. It would also establish various growth and planning objectives, including around water usage and availability.
Supporters said the changes, dramatic as they are, would still represent an important alteration to cities’ planning and would provide vital data to a housing-minded legislature in the years to come. Still, the amendment represents a significant change prompted by broad opposition from local governments, and it’s a rare rebuke of a Polis-led policy. The change was prompted by concerns from Zenzinger and Sen. Jeff Bridges, who also sits on the Appropriations Committee and also supports the amendment.
“My bright line, the thing I could not abide by, was pre-emption. The state having anything over local land use was a dealbreaker. This takes care of that,” Zenzinger said, adding, “Now that the unconstitutionality of the bill has been addressed, I am ready to move forward. Is it perfect? No. But you cannot let perfect be the enemy of the good.”
The bill has been a key priority for Polis, who highlighted it during his State of the State speech in January, and it has the backing of a broad coalition of housing, environmental and business groups. They’ve said statewide zoning standards are necessary to address the state’s housing shortage, estimated at tens of thousands of units, and to treat the crisis as a statewide problem. Encouraging denser development near transit stations would also help the state curb pollution, supporters say, while encouraging more intentional urban planning and cutting down on sprawl.
Though it would take several years, proponents have said the bill would spur more housing development for multiple income types and would help lower prices.
In a statement sent Tuesday afternoon, Polis spokesman Conor Cahill didn’t touch on the planned changes. He highlighted support behind the bill and said Polis is “focused on ensuring that solutions are driven by the data and will actually work to reduce housing costs.”
While the bill does have its supporters, the measure has faced a buzzsaw of criticism from local governments, who accused state leaders of overstepping their authority and infringing on local planning decisions. Kevin Bommer, the executive director of the Colorado Municipal League, told lawmakers in early April that he and his members — meaning cities and towns across the state — wouldn’t support the bill unless its sponsors removed all of its preemptions.
Republicans, like Sen. Barbara Kirkmeyer, have also been critical, as have some Democrats, including Zenzinger and Bridges. The bill was pared back during its initial committee meeting vote in mid-April to win over other hesitant Democrats, changes that essentially carved out resort communities from upzoning requirements and significantly curbed the upzoning proposals for cities.
Advocates who’ve worked on the bill greeted its imminent gutting with mixed reactions Tuesday afternoon. Kinsey Hasstedt of Enterprise Community Partners said the planning and needs assessments were important first steps in the broader discussion of addressing housing. She said she had concerns about the various upzoning and middle-housing requirements in the initial bill, given their potential to displace current residents, and that it made sense to wait on those provisions.
“This is an opportunity to understand and address the housing needs of communities we’ve long marginalized,” she said. “I’m glad to see the governor and legislature are moving toward taking that opportunity.”
Peter LiFari, who runs the Adams County housing authority Maiker Housing Partners, said he was hopeful that the bill — though “vastly different” than its introduced version — had “elevated the urgency of land use reform.” Policymakers and Coloradans, he continued, face a choice.
“Do we want to open the doors of opportunity to all housing types and the people who call them home,” LiFari said, “or do we want to continue segregating our communities and labeling higher housing density as destructive?”
If the bill passes out of committee Wednesday morning, it would head to the full Senate, potentially later that day, officials said. If it passes the full chamber, it would then cross over to the House. Rep. Steven Woodrow, a Denver Democrat and one of the House sponsors of the bill, declined to comment Tuesday morning when asked if he or other House members would return the bill to its pre-amendment state once it gets to the House.
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