Could Colorado override local zoning codes to allow more density? It’s ‘part of the conversation’ as a major land use bill takes shape

A housing development in Weld County that sits close to I-25. Dec. 11, 2021.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
A housing development in Weld County that sits close to I-25. Dec. 11, 2021.

As the year began, Gov. Jared Polis put Colorado on notice: He wants to implement sweeping changes to how the state handles growth and development. 

In his marquee State of the State speech, Polis repeated the word “housing” nearly 40 times, building on an earlier interview where he said that the state needs to encourage denser development by loosening local rules.

More than a month later, anticipation about those changes is mounting, with land-use policy — and who has the power to set it — expected to be a dominant issue in the remaining months of the legislative session. 

The governor has given little hint of his specific plans, but details are filtering out. Senate Majority Leader Dominick Moreno confirmed on Thursday that he’s among the tight circle working on the bill.

“Right now, it’s me and folks from the governor’s team,” Moreno said, referring to the work on the details of the bill itself. 

But in the coming weeks, he hopes to share a more detailed plan with city leaders and others. It could include a broad range of possibilities, Moreno confirmed, such as:

  • Requiring cities to create plans for addressing the housing shortage, and holding them accountable for those plans
  • Making it easier to build accessory dwelling units (ADUs) and duplexes in certain areas across the state
  • Making it easier to build higher-density housing around high-frequency transit stations
  • Limiting the ability of cities to put caps on their growth rate

“We know that’s an issue at the local level, where people are concerned about further density. I'm not concerned about further density,” Moreno said. “I think the reality is (density) is the path forward out of this conundrum that we find ourselves in.”

Still, what that path might actually look like remains unsettled.

Incentives or mandates?

Perhaps the most controversial question is whether Colorado’s government will override local zoning codes and open the door to denser development statewide, as states including California, Oregon and Maine have done. 

“The reality is that when you leave those decisions exclusively up to local jurisdictions, some local jurisdictions choose to take a pass. They decide that they don't want further development in their community,” Moreno said. “And I think the legislature is interested in having a conversation around shared responsibility … to get out of this critical housing shortage.”

When it comes to things like duplexes and ADUs, for example, lawmakers could take a couple routes.

They could offer incentives by giving grant money to cities that voluntarily cut red tape for these higher-density buildings. “If we provide funding for development, for housing, for infrastructure, we kind of expect a return on our investment,” said Moreno, a former city council member in Commerce City.

But the state also could take a more aggressive approach — saying, for example, that developers may build a duplex “by right” in zones where only single-family construction is allowed currently. Doing so would override local governments’ authority.

“I think the ‘by right' conversation is an interesting one. I think it's part of the conversation mix for sure,” Moreno said, adding that he’s still willing to discuss it with local leaders.

In a statement, Polis said that his team had been working with “more than 100” leaders in business, housing, local governments and environmental fields. “Although we don’t have a bill yet, we are closer,” the statement read.

Many local officials have taken a hard line against state intervention

The lines of debate are forming already, especially on the question of state influence in local development policies. 

“Respectfully, get off our lawn,” said Kevin Bommer, executive director of the Colorado Municipal League, as he addressed a ballroom full of local leaders on Thursday. He argued that cities have led the way on affordable housing and that the state should help them rather than overrule them.

“What we want to do is work with the state in a positive way, work with the governor and the legislature in a positive way to achieve those goals that we have in common,” Bommer said in an interview.

Local officials defended their turf throughout the Municipal League event on Thursday, including Denver Mayor Michael Hancock.

“While we may share the same values around land use and affordable housing, we will never, ever surrender local control to anyone,” Hancock said to applause.

In an email, a spokesman for Hancock said he wasn’t referencing a specific proposal. 

“Local control is Denver’s long-standing position generally,” Hancock spokesman Mike Strott wrote. “As there’s no proposal from the Governor yet, the Mayor doesn’t have a position yet.”

A mix of advocates are hard at work on the bill

On the other side, a coalition of groups, including advocates for affordable housing, sustainable transportation, and the environment, have been working behind the scenes to draft principles that could feed into the coming legislation.

“We've been developing policy concepts around smart growth housing and zoning reform for the 2023 legislative session and shared that input with the governor's policy team,” said Matt Frommer, senior transportation associate with the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project. 

Another newly formed nonprofit advocacy group, Colorado Builds Better, launched this week specifically to support land use reform and touted a new poll that purports to show public support for it. Group spokesman Ray Rivera declined to say who is funding the group, promising he’d share more information in the future. 

“We’re going to work with people from the business community, to environmental groups, to housing advocates,” Rivera said.

Many are anxious just to see ‘Schrodinger’s zoning bill’

Meanwhile, with more than a quarter of the legislative session already over, lawmakers and others are anxious to see the details. One state representative, Javier Mabrey, joked that it was “Schrodinger’s zoning bill” — a proposal that either exists or doesn’t, depending how you look at it.

The bill could lead to some interesting politics. Sometimes, development reforms attract bipartisan support: Housing prices are a statewide issue, and loosening regulations is a conservative priority. 

But they also can attract bipartisan opposition, especially in a state that has long embraced local control.

“I can tell you that on my side of the aisle, we’re really opposed to this idea,” Republican Assistant Senate Minority Leader Bob Gardner told local leaders at the CML event on Thursday.

Moreno hopes to have a bill drafted and ready for introduction by the end of March — adding another big issue for the legislature’s often chaotic final weeks.