The big Colorado land use bill has officially failed

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
The Colorado state Senate on the last day of the legislative session. May 8, 2023.

Updated 11:36 p.m.

The Colorado state legislature will hand Gov. Jared Polis a significant defeat on the final day of the legislative session, refusing to pass his landmark proposal to overhaul Colorado’s rules for housing development.

The months-long push will end without legislative results, as the Senate does not plan to move forward with any version of the bill before the 11:59 p.m. deadline tonight. Senate Majority Leader Dominick Moreno confirmed just after 7 p.m. that the bill would die.

Both the House and the Senate had already passed versions of the legislation, but they were starkly different, posing a major challenge. The Senate version was much narrower, focusing mostly on planning, while the House version included upzoning mandates that would have allowed greater density in cities.

In a statement, the governor’s office said he was “deeply disappointed that politics and special interests continue to delay delivering real results” for Coloradans in search of housing and businesses who need workers.

The statement said: “Polis will continue his fight to better protect the property rights of homeowners and make Colorado more affordable to purchase or rent homes because changing the status quo isn’t easy.”

Moreno worked through recent days to convince Senators to open the door for a compromise version with the House, but Democrats in the Senate were divided into multiple camps and did not coalesce around a plan. 

Talk of a big land-use bill first bubbled up during the 2022 elections. Anticipation grew for months, until the governor introduced the actual proposal in March and instantly drew national attention. The original version would have changed the development rules for neighborhoods throughout many of Colorado’s cities, taking a power that has historically rested with local governments.

It would not have forced anyone to sell or change their property, but it would have made it possible for property owners and developers to build condos and townhomes across all residential neighborhoods in dozens of cities.

At each step in the Senate, individual Senators used their leverage to add caveats and carve-outs. The bill was amended dozens of times, shrinking dramatically before it finally passed the chamber. But it grew again in the House as lawmakers piled on more amendments — a wild, highly technical ride that left heads spinning.

By the last weekend of the session, Democrats in the House had passed one version and Democrats in the Senate had passed another. Republicans unanimously rejected the bill as an unacceptable breach of local control. That left the question of whether Democrats could or would create a compromise bill. Alternatively, the Senate could have forced the House to choose between approving the stripped-down version and letting it die altogether.

Asked for her opinion of the state of the bill on Sunday, state Sen. Julie Gonzales told a reporter that these emojis summed it up: “??‍♀️??‍♀️??‍♀️”.

Polis himself made a few public appearances to rally support for the bill, including at a Mexican restaurant and near a light rail station. In April, he signaled that he would accept even a stripped-back version.

“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,” he said.

In the legislature, the work was done by the governor’s staffers and lawmaker allies, including state Sen. Moreno, who could be seen talking colleagues through the measure for weeks.

The legislation under consideration in the final days was the result of an extremely delicate balancing act that was meant to keep Democrats together in the face of intense blowback from local landowners and city elected officials. 

“This probably has the most differences of opinion, across the board … of any bill I've ever seen,” said state Sen. Kyle Mullica, a Democrat.

Even in solidly blue Denver, lawmakers said that the feedback from constituents was split 50-50 on the issue — unusual for a top Democratic priority. In surrounding suburban districts, lawmakers said their most vocal constituents were overwhelmingly opposed to the measure, and there were whispers of recall efforts.

Municipal officials and Republicans portrayed the bill as a fundamental challenge to the Colorado way of governance — and even its way of life.

“The governor and proponents are interested … in usurping the rights of property owners to protect the character and meet the land-use needs of their communities,” Colorado Municipal League Executive Director Kevin Bommer told a legislative committee.

The mayors of almost every city in the metro Denver area came out against the bill — with the exception of Boulder Mayor Aaron Brockett. While Boulder is well-known for its slow-growth political stance, Brockett said that exorbitant prices have set the stage for a political shift there.

“There's been increasingly a number of people in the community and elected officials who've seen a need to act pretty aggressively to give people an option to live here,” he said in an earlier interview.

Meanwhile, Republicans hoped to catch Polis overextending himself. State Sen. Barbara Kirkmeyer, a Republican, proposed a near-total rewrite of the bill. It didn’t pass, but it helped shape the debate over the bill as it struggled through a Senate committee.

“(Polis) feels so empowered that he thinks he can come forward and tell everybody and every community where you're gonna live,” Kirkmeyer said in April. “What he's going to do is destroy neighborhoods and impact people's private property rights and infringe on their quality of life.”

State Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, a Democrat, was key in narrowing the bill. As a committee member, she forced the removal of upzoning elements. She said on Monday that no amount of arguing would convince her and many others to accept the preemption of local zoning authority, but called on Polis to convene a statewide conversation.

“I think they wanted to do something bold and sweeping because we have a problem with affordable housing and I think they wanted to address that. Unfortunately, I think that you need to have all the people at the table if you want the solution to actually work,” she said.

At times, even Democratic lawmakers who supported the bill chafed at the speed and scope of the measure.

“I appreciate the governor's commitment to solving big problems and pursuing ambitious solutions that'll make a big difference,” said Democratic state Rep. Chris deGruy Kennedy. “I do think that there were some times where things weren’t circulated broadly enough early on, such that we could solicit as much feedback as we would like, including to members of the legislature.”

Gonzales pointed to the tension that can come when an executive pushes a controversial proposal through the legislature.
“The governor isn't a legislator. And so, you know, legislators in our chamber need to engage in this work earlier, and more intentionally. I look forward to being a part of that work,” she said, suggesting that a package of smaller bills might work better.

The bill was sponsored by Moreno and Democratic representatives Iman Jodeh and Steven Woodrow.

As the news of the bill’s demise spread, Polis tweeted from his personal account: “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger,” quoting Friedrich Nietzsche.

Separately, Polis did notch at least one win in his quest to shape local development policies: The legislature passed a bill that would overturn the growth limits passed by cities like Golden, Lakewood and Boulder.

This is a developing story and will be updated.