Land use bill is headed for a House-Senate showdown

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
The American and Colorado flags are draped under the Rotunda at the Colorado State Capitol on Tuesday, January 3, 2023, awaiting the return of state lawmakers.

After a day of debate and hours of waiting around, the land-use bill is set to pass the House. The proposal — which aims to boost housing construction in Colorado by overriding local development rules — had been amended more than 60 times in all by the time that state representatives gave an initial approval late Thursday night.

“We understand what is not working, which is the current unfortunate status quo, needs to shift, and sometimes that takes a while,” said Democratic Rep. Iman Jodeh of Aurora, a sponsor. “That’s why this bill is so big. We are implementing a change in our culture as Colordans and we are setting benchmarks for the rest of the nation to follow.”

The bill needs another vote of approval by the House of Representatives to pass the chamber, but that is not the end of the story. It still has some likely drama ahead, since the Senate had earlier approved a dramatically different version of the legislation. And lawmakers only have until midnight Monday to work out their differences if the bill is to pass.

The speed and scope of the bill and its amendments drew sharp objections from Republicans, with tempers flaring at times on the floor.

“We are frustrated on behalf of our citizens, and we ask you to be as frustrated as we are,” said Republican Rep. Ron Weinberg of Loveland. “You cannot push this through so quickly without having the understanding of what it does. We will only fail.”

Republicans and some municipal leaders, including the Colorado Municipal League and dozens of metro Denver mayors, have complained that they had little or no input in the bill's creation. They again argued that local voters, and local elected officials, should make local development decisions. A Republican proposal to let voters decide on the bill failed.

The bill has been through several major twists as its sponsors have tried to get it past resistant lawmakers from both parties. 

The version passed by the House retains the most controversial change that was originally proposed: It allows the state to partially override local development laws. As passed, it says that cities must allow greater residential density — think rowhomes, condos and three-story apartment buildings — along high-frequency bus lines and near rail stations.

Democratic Rep. Jennifer Parenti said the law would reward cities with incentives if they plan for “strategic growth,” too.

“We believe in affordable housing. We believe in denser housing. We believe in upzoning. We believe in regional collaboration,” she said.

The House changes put it in conflict with the Senate’s version of the bill. Earlier, supporters in the Senate dropped all preemption in order to get the bill out of their chamber. That chamber's final version focuses largely on statewide planning for housing.

Now, the House and Senate versions are on a collision course, with a few different possible outcomes.

The Senate could vote to accept the House amendments, but earlier debates strongly suggest that's unacceptable to a number of senators.

The Senate could reject the House’s changes outright, which would leave the House with no choice but to either accept the Senate version, or let the bill die.

But what’s more likely is that the two chambers will try to work it out. They can form a conference committee of a select group of lawmakers — mostly Democrats — who will rewrite the bill into something they believe could be approved by both chambers.

Earlier this week, Senate President Steve Fenberg said his chamber hadn’t decided what it would do.

“I think we want to pass it one way or another,” he told reporters. “I think the big question is what's gonna be in it when it gets across the finish line, and what is left to still do in future sessions?”

By law, the legislature must wrap up its work by midnight Monday.