Colorado’s upzoning bill doesn’t include upzoning anymore

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Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Construction in Denver’s RiNo neighborhood, Feb. 3, 2023.

The upzoning bill isn’t an upzoning bill anymore. For now, at least.

Senate Democrats on Wednesday morning stripped out the most consequential and controversial parts of Gov. Jared Polis’ land-use bill.

The action happened in the Senate Appropriations committee, which is normally a sedate place tasked with approving funding requests. Instead, this meeting produced dramatic changes to one of the Polis administration’s top priorities.

In a 4-3 vote, the committee passed a 39-page rewrite of the bill that was driven by Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, a Democrat from Arvada. Zenzinger had said the bill was unconstitutional because it gave the state power over decisions that belong to local governments.

“I agree that many of the ideas are sound policy. My communities have largely already implemented them too,” Zenzinger told CPR News via text. 

“But I cannot ‘get over’ the constitutionality of the state taking over the authority from the local government. We can achieve the policy aims in collaboration with one another without fundamentally disrupting the balance of power.”

The original bill would have forced cities to allow greater residential density in some areas, overriding their local zoning control. That concept of mandatory upzoning has now been erased from the bill. Instead, the amended bill focuses on statewide analysis and plans around the housing market.

The changes were enough to get the bill past the Senate Appropriations committee, where Democratic Sen. Jeff Bridges had also raised concerns. It was a party-line vote. All three Republicans on the panel voted against both the amendment and the bill itself.

Wednesday’s action was only the latest dramatic revision to the bill, which Polis introduced at a press conference in March. It heads next to the full Senate.

Will the changes to the bill stand?

The bill’s supporters could still try to reverse the changes and restore the original form of the bill. That could happen on the Senate floor or in the House. Either way, the final bill will have to eventually get the majority approval of both the full House and the full Senate.

Kevin Bommer, the executive director of the Colorado Municipal League, said the amendment would satisfy many cities’ concerns — assuming the changes aren’t reversed down the line.

“Whether or not it stays this way is up to the sponsors and the governor,” he said. 

In a statement, Moreno said that, even with the amendments, the bill “still accomplishes a major goal” of coordinated land-use planning.

But he added a caveat: Like any bill going through the legislative process, it will likely keep changing. “I’m committed to staying in close contact with the House sponsors … and I will review any future amendments as they are put forth,” he said.

For his part, Polis did not directly say whether he would accept the changes. A CPR News reporter asked him about the amendment at an event in Centennial.

“I strongly support making progress everywhere and anyhow that we can on More Housing Now. And it's really a huge need in our state,” the governor said, referring to his “More Housing Now” branding of the bill. 

Polis continued: “We need to all get together to be able to figure this out. And, hopefully, we'll be able to take a step forward this year.”

Some of the bill’s supporters are preparing for the fact that what the legislature eventually passes might bear little resemblance to the bill’s original form. Matt Frommer with the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project, an advocate for the bill, said there are still some positives in the amended version.

“In terms of actually quantifying the scale of the housing crisis, we’re sort of shooting in the dark right now, because we don’t know how many homes we have at different income levels and where we need to build them,” he said. “The housing needs assessment will really help figure that out.”

But without a mandatory upzoning, he said, the “fundamental” roadblock to new housing would remain. “You’ve got a small but very vocal minority with too much veto power that really blocks every housing opportunity for those who don’t have it,” he said.

Rep. Steven Woodrow, a sponsor in the House, said that reversing the changes would not be easy.

“I wish things were that simple. It isn't, There's a multitude of factors that have to be weighed and, look — never give up hope,” he said.

Sen. Barbara Kirkmeyer, a Republican, also proposed a dramatic amendment in the Appropriations Committee but ended up voting against Zenzinger’s version, saying it still puts too much planning power in the hands of state administrators. She also wants to see the state host a summit meeting to talk about land use.

Polis is “trying to change the whole makeup of our state with a 13-member multi-agency committee, mostly bureaucrats,” she said.

What the bill does now

Under the amendment, a committee of state officials would conduct a “statewide housing needs assessment” by the end of 2024. That assessment would look at the existing housing stock and needs of various cities and regions. New assessments would be done every six years. State money would be available to help with the plans.

The state also would report on the water supply situation for urban and suburban areas.

Meanwhile, certain local governments would create “housing needs plans” that detail how they’ll grow to meet demand. Only urban municipalities with populations above 25,000 or median incomes above $55,000 would need to go through that process. The first plans would be due by the end of 2026 and every six years afterward. 

Those local plans would detail how cities will “provide a realistic opportunity for development” to address its housing needs. Separately, the amended bill sets new requirements for how local governments draft master land-use plans.

There would be no direct consequences for failing to hit housing goals. But the state could incentivize cities with funding to support new “strategic growth objectives.”

The measure still keeps a couple more immediate changes. It would still ban cities from setting limits on how many unrelated roommates can live together. And it still would try to stop cities from discriminating against mobile-home parks.

Messy process draws criticism

The Appropriations Committee’s role is to decide whether to dedicate money from the budget to pay for specific legislative proposals. Unlike hearings in other committees, this step in the process generally involves no public witnesses and little debate.

Republican Sen. Bob Gardner said it was unusual and disturbing for Appropriations to make such large changes to a bill with statewide implications. He said that the bill should have been sent back to the Senate Local Government and Housing committee.

“What has happened here today is a gross breach of what I think the public’s expectations are for the public policy process,” he said, calling the proceedings “opaque” and saying that negotiations over the bill had largely played out in the governor’s world instead of in the legislature.

He added that Coloradans “should be outraged by what we are doing here today.”

Moreno countered that argument, pointing out that the amendment was only removing concepts from the bill, not introducing new ones. The earlier committee had heard a full day of testimony on the topic. Bridges said that constituents also could make their views known through other means, such as the hundreds of emails that have poured into some lawmakers’ inboxes.

“I do feel there has been a real respect for the process and public input,” Bridges said.

CPR News reporter Nathaniel Minor contributed to this article.