Colorado could ban ‘slow-growth’ policies as GOP and liberals team up at the statehouse

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
A housing subdivision in the Plains town of Strasburg, about an hour east of Denver on Interstate 70.

Colorado cities would be banned from passing slow-growth and anti-growth laws under a proposal that gained some bipartisan support in a surprising committee hearing Tuesday afternoon.

The bill, which is sponsored by two Republicans, would forbid municipalities from enacting new limits on the number of residential units that can be built each year. State Sen. Julie Gonzales, a Denver Democrat, crossed the aisle to help the bill survive its first hearing.

"This is not a party issue. This is something we're all grappling with as Coloradans," said Gonzales, chair of the State, Veterans, & Military Affairs Committee.

The committee is often known as the “kill” committee, and the odds of the Republican proposal originally seemed slim. But an unusual coalition of conservative property-rights advocates and liberal urbanites came together to support the proposal.

“It’s to my surprise as a lifelong Democrat that I’m calling in in support of a Republican-sponsored bill,” said Sandy Weathers, a resident of Lakewood, adding that the voter-approved growth limit there was driving her friends out of the city.

“I have witnessed what happens … when you have zero multifamily units that are going to be built in a neighborhood that desperately needs it,” she said.

The afternoon debate focused on how — and whether — Colorado cities should be able to limit their own growth and development. The hearing wrapped up without a vote, but Gonzales’ support means that the measure is poised to pass at a future meeting and potentially proceed to a full vote before the Senate.

“The reality is, no matter how much money this body decides to pour into affordable housing efforts, if local governments continue to enact anti-growth initiatives and unreasonable zoning policies, we are not going to construct the additional housing units we need to make Colorado affordable again,” said state Sen. Larry Liston, who co-sponsored the bill with Rep. Andres Picos. Both are Republicans from Colorado Springs.

Boulder, Golden and Lakewood are among the cities that have instituted limits on growth. Voters in those cities approved growth restrictions in 1976, 1995 and 2019, respectively. In each city, the law says that the residential housing stock can grow by only 1 percent per year.

The Republican proposal would not invalidate those existing laws. Instead, it would ban other cities from instituting “any limitation” on the number of zoning applications or building permits allowed each year.

The amended version of the bill garnered strong support from Republican leadership.

“I agree with (Sen. Gonzales.) We have got to think outside the box. We have got to look at innovative ways to change the way we approach housing in this state,” said Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert of Douglas County, also a member of the committee.

However, if the bill passes, it will have changed significantly from Republicans’ original vision.

As originally drafted, the bill would have severely limited cities’ ability to “downzone” properties. Downzoning is when a local government puts new limits on what a property owner can build. The proposal would have required cities to pay “just compensation” to property owners for lost value if their property is downzoned, similar to a law in Arizona.

In reaching their compromise with Gonzales, sponsors agreed to drop that section. It was also a major focus of the opposition at the hearing, who argued that the “just compensation” measure would have hobbled city governments and shifted power to private property owners, rather than city leaders. (Republicans like Holbert said they liked that part.)

“We believe that municipalities and their elected officials … need to be able to make those determinations, at that level, with public input, with developer input, with the input of all constituents,” said Meghan Dollar, a lobbyist for the Colorado Municipal League.

After the meeting, Dollar said that CML would poll its members about their opinions on the amended version of the bill, which focuses only on growth limits.

“I think it’s really important to get feedback from municipal officials on this one. I will say that generally, CML opposes anything that takes land-use regulation out of the local level,” Dollar said.

More than a half-dozen liberal land-use reformers — also known as “YIMBYs,” for “Yes In My Backyard” —  spoke on the proposal. They weren’t particularly interested in the state-vs-local debate over property rights. Instead, they, they echoed the Republican argument that the state needs to rev up its housing industry in order to meet demand.

“We’ve had decades to see exactly what these (slow-growth) policies have done to limit housing,” said Dmitrii Zavorotny, treasurer of YIMBY Denver. The Boulder growth-limiting law directly blocked his parents’ chance to build a home there, he said. He argues the policy has led to sprawl and pollution as people are forced to move to outlying communities instead of Boulder.

How fast to grow has been a Colorado question for decades

Colorado’s modern growth debate began in large part in the 1960s and 1970s, and Boulder was at the forefront. In 1976, Boulder voters made it the “first community in the Rocky Mountain West” to put a limit on its growth, as the High Country News reported. 

Then-councilman Paul Danish, who led the effort, argued that uncontrolled growth “can’t be tolerated in Boulder because it would break the urban infrastructure and destroy all the desirable qualities of the town’s environment.” 

His opponents, including local real-estate brokers, argued that the move would turn Boulder into “an exclusionary community open only to well-to-do” residents. 

Boulder’s single-family home prices today are the highest on the Front Range, with the median house going for about $785,000.

Since then, the slow- or anti-growth movement has resurfaced several times. In 1995, Boulder tightened its residential growth limit from 2 percent to 1 percent per year, and Golden passed a similar cap. In 2019, Lakewood voters approved their own slow-growth law. Advocates also tried — but failed — to create a growth limit across the Front Range in 2019 and 2020.

During the pandemic, housing prices in Colorado have hit new highs, and leaders of both parties have made the shortage of new developments a central message. The pro-growth bill is part of Republicans’ “Commitment to Colorado” a package of bills focused largely on the cost of living.

State lawmakers are set to spend $400 million of federal money on a groundbreaking affordable-housing package. And in recent years, Democrats led an effort to create incentives for cities that allow greater density and embrace affordable housing.

The current pro-growth measure also breaks new ground: Its text declares that housing has become a “statewide” concern. That kind of language could contribute to a greater argument for intervention by state lawmakers in policies that, until now, have been decided at the local level.

Among other changes, Gonzales suggested that the legislature could create a permanent committee to address housing issues — another sign of their growing importance to policymakers from both parties.