Colorado bill would eliminate cities’ growth caps

Downtown Golden
Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Downtown Golden, Colorado, Oct. 30 2019

Local laws that limit the growth rate of cities like Boulder, Golden and Lakewood would be erased by a new proposal at the state legislature.

The bill, titled HB23-1255, was recently introduced by Democrats at the statehouse. It’s part of a sweeping pro-growth agenda, including a new land use bill, that aims to increase housing construction by eliminating local restrictions on development.

“What we're seeing from this patchwork of these growth caps … is that housing is more scarce and commuter times are long,” said Rep. William Lindstedt, a sponsor of the bill. 

He added: “I think it's become more and more of a regional issue. And that's why the legislature should pick it up and say, ‘Hey, local communities, every development should have a hearing and should be at least considered.’”

The bill would override all existing laws that limit the number of residential permits or construction projects that a city approves per year. It would also ban cities from enacting new growth caps. Sen. Julie Gonzales and Rep. Ruby Dickson, both Democrats, are co-sponsors.

Golden, for example, allows its housing stock to expand by only 1 percent per year. That translates to a maximum of 88 new units allowed under the cap for this year. Boulder’s 1 percent limit results in about 400 new units allowed annually. 

Supporters of growth limits say they can help cities preserve local character and stay within the limits of their infrastructure. But the bill’s backers say these laws are limiting the supply of housing and driving up prices, forcing other cities to build more to meet demand instead.

The bill states that “anti-growth laws” cause “irreparable economic harm to working-class Coloradans by limiting the housing supply and driving up housing prices and rents.”

The ban would apply to counties, cities, special districts, municipalities and all other forms of local government. The only exception is that a local government could temporarily limit growth for up to a year after a disaster emergency is declared, for example after a large fire.

Peter Pollock, a retired city planner from Boulder, argued that growth limits had ultimately helped that city, and he pointed out that it added exemptions for things like affordable housing. Some residents treasure Boulder today for its compact size, plentiful parks and low-density neighborhoods.

"This was an example of the community saying, ‘City, you're out of step, you need to do better about how you're managing growth.’ And I think it was a kick in the butt to do that,” he said.

Critics point out that Boulder is one of the most expensive cities in the state, with median home prices well over $1 million, and development has instead spread out to neighboring suburban cities like Broomfield, which Lindstedt represents. Boulder’s growth is also limited by its zoning policies and restrictions on water service.

In Lakewood, a voter-approved growth law allowed up to 705 residential units to be added in 2022, but only 223 of those allocations were actually issued to builders, according to city officials.

However, another 612 units were allowed outside of the growth cap, as the Lakewood law exempted blighted property and the replacement of existing units. The law also allows the city to set aside a portion of the units allowed under the cap each year for affordable housing.

Mayor Adam Paul said that development has slowed significantly — dragging to an even slower pace than what’s legally allowed — because the law has made construction too complicated.

“I certainly have to have so much respect for the community. They did pass this, they cared enough, this was a big issue. And I'm not dismissing that,” he said. “I think it's the right problem, but the wrong solution.”

Charley Able, a councilman in Lakewood, said that it would be wrong to override the growth law, which he sees as a good intervention because the city was seeing too many new multifamily units that are not “attractive to young and growing families.”

“My problem with this is that it undermines local control on a number of levels. And I think the closer you are to the community that you represent, the more likely you are to preserve the character of the neighborhood they cherish. And I think this takes it out of our hands, wrongfully so,” he said. The Lakewood law exempts blighted property and affordable housing.

He sees the overall push to enable development as a hand-out to for-profit companies.

“The proposed legislation favors deep-pocket developers and special interests over affordable housing,” he said.

A bipartisan proposal last year similarly took on growth limits. That bill was less ambitious since it would not have eliminated existing laws, but it eventually failed.

This year may be different. Gov. Jared Polis has put his full force into an effort to reform the state’s land-use laws. The centerpiece bill would eliminate single-family-only zoning in dozens of cities, allowing property owners to build up to six units on lots where they could previously only build one.

If it’s passed, the new law would take effect late this summer, if opponents don’t try to go to the ballot to overturn it.

Editor’s note: This article was updated on March 29, 2023 to clarify the number of units permitted in Lakewood that were exempted from the growth cap and to add comment from Councilman Charley Able.