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A housing development at the corner of 29th and Zenobia, in Denver Colorado on Monday, November 21, 2022.(Jeremy Sparig, Special to The Colorado Sun).

Fast-growing, housing-strapped Colorado communities would be barred from limiting construction of duplexes, triplexes and add-on housing units under a marquee measure unveiled Wednesday by Gov. Jared Polis and Democratic state lawmakers aimed at addressing the state’s housing crisis by increasing residential density.  

The land-use bill would also block limits on how many unrelated people can live in the same home and prevent Colorado’s largest cities from restricting what kind of housing can be built near transit stops. A separate measure, meanwhile, would ban municipalities from imposing new growth caps and eliminate existing ones. 

The land-use proposal would apply differently throughout the state depending on population size and housing needs, with the biggest impacts on Colorado’s most populous cities — Denver, Aurora, Boulder, Lakewood, Colorado Springs and Grand Junction — but also rules for rural communities and resort towns, which have faced their own unique housing struggles.

“This is an affordability crisis around housing in our state,” Gov. Jared Polis told The Colorado Sun. “Absent action, it’s only going to get worse. We absolutely want to move our state in a way where homeownership and rent are more affordable, and this will help get that done.”

Polis said the bills — one of which is expected to be more than 100 pages long — represent the most ambitious land-use policy changes in Colorado in about 40 years. The policy changes will take years to go into effect, but the governor said if the state doesn’t act, Colorado could start to look like California, where homes are even less affordable and traffic is worse.

“We want to make sure we get ahead of the curve,” he said.

Local government leaders have been wary of the proposals, previewed in the governor’s State of the State address in January, because of how it would restrict their power to create and enforce housing policies. 

“Respectfully, get off our lawn,” Kevin Bommer, executive director of the Colorado Municipal League, said at a gathering of local officials in February when describing negotiations on the legislation with Polis’ office.

The organization’s board voted to oppose the land-use bill last week, Bommer said. “CML opposes this sweeping and breathtaking attempt to centralize local land use and zoning policy in the state Capitol, while doing nothing to guarantee affordability,” Bommer said in a written statement, also calling the measure a “breathtaking power grab.”

The only Colorado mayor who spoke in support of the bill at a Capitol news conference Wednesday rolling out the legislation was Boulder Mayor Aaron Brockett. “There’s still some work to be done and I’m sure there’ll be changes hashed out,” he said. “But there is so much at value here.”

The bills are also expected to meet fierce pushback from the few Republicans in the legislature, who are in the minority in the House and Senate and have little say over which measures pass or fail. 

The measures have been the talk of the Capitol since the 2023 legislative session began in January, but the details of what’s in the legislation have been under wraps until now. Democrats  will have less than two months to pass the bills through the House and Senate before the lawmaking term ends in early May. 

The governor’s office says the land-use bill was drafted after more than 120 meetings with housing and business experts and local officials and through research on similar policies passed in other states. Oregon, for instance, passed a law in 2019 requiring cities with a population greater than 1,000 to allow duplexes, while cities with more than 25,000 people must allow townhomes, duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes.

Rep. Steven Woodrow, a Denver Democrat who will be one of the prime sponsors of the land-use bill, said the measure is supposed to prevent some Colorado communities erecting barriers to development while their neighbors sprawl out of control, which can cause gentrification and water issues.

“We have to do this at the state level because local political pressures are such that it hasn’t been hasn’t been done until now,” Woodrow said.

A home for sale in Frisco on July 14, 2022. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

The measure reshaping land use in Colorado would apply only to municipalities, not counties. The governor’s office and the bills’ sponsors believe they can impose policy restrictions on cities and towns because housing is an issue of statewide concern, a position that could be tested in court. 

“Research has shown that increasing housing supply, like building units like duplexes and townhomes, can increase affordability,” Senate Majority Leader Dominick Moreno, a Commerce City Democrat and a lead sponsor of the bill, said at a news conference Wednesday. “Yet these types of housing are often prohibited in many of the communities that need them the most. And that doesn’t make sense.”

Rep. Iman Jodeh, D-Aurora, is the third main sponsor of the legislation.

An unanswered question is whether developers will take advantage of the bill, should it pass.

“I think that people are anxious to provide housing,” said J.J. Ament, president and CEO of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, which supports the bill. “I don’t think it really is a capital problem in Colorado. It is regulatory and environment. I think the capital will flow because the demand is there.”

Senate Majority Leader Dominick Moreno, D-Commerce City, speaks at a news conference on Wednesday, March 22, 2023, at the Colorado Capitol where legislation changing local land-use policy was unveiled. (Elliott Wenzler, The Colorado Sun)

The legislation is slated to be formally introduced this week. The measures were described in detail to The Sun by their sponsors and the governor. 

The requirements will vary for different parts of the state depending on which of five categories they fall into based on their population and housing needs. Here’s how the requirements would break down: 

Tier 1

Tier 1 cities include: Arvada, Aurora, Boulder, Brighton, Broomfield, Castle Pines, Castle Rock, Centennial, Cherry Hills Village, Columbine Valley, Commerce City, Denver, Edgewater, Englewood, Erie, Federal Heights, Glendale, Golden, Greenwood Village, Lafayette, Lakewood, Littleton, Lochbuie, Lone Tree, Longmont, Louisville, Northglenn, Parker, Sheridan, Superior, Thornton, Westminster and Wheat Ridge.

Outside of the Denver metro area, Greeley, Fort Collins, Loveland, Windsor, Colorado Springs, Fountain, Grand Junction and Pueblo would also be considered Tier 1 cities.

Cities in this category have a population of at least 1,000 and are in a metropolitan planning organization — such as the Denver Regional Council of Governments — with a population greater than 1 million and in a Census Urbanized Area with a population greater than 75,000. Cities with a population greater than 25,000 and in a metropolitan planning organization with a population less than 1 million would also fall into this category. 

Tier 1 cities would be most affected by the land-use bill. They would be prohibited from restricting duplexes, triplexes and multiplexes up to six units, as well as accessory-dwelling units, sometimes referred to as ADUs or granny flats. They would also be prohibited from requiring parking tied to those kinds of housing.

ADUs are habitable structures that are on the same property as a house but a separate building, such as an apartment over a garage. Many municipalities across the state restrict where and how they can be built.

Tier 1 cities would also have to allow the construction of multifamily housing near transit centers, which are defined as the half-mile area around fixed-rail stations.Cities wouldn’t be allowed to require new, off-street parking for multifamily homes built in transit corridors, though developers could provide any amount of parking they feel is needed.

Tier 1 cities would also be subject to development guidelines aimed at promoting housing density and walkable communities around so-called key transit corridors, which are defined as areas within a quarter mile of bus-rapid-transit and high-frequency bus routes. 

Townhomes and single-family residences are seen near the Montaine community on Oct. 17, 2022, in Castle Rock. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Finally, Tier 1 cities will also be required to complete a housing needs plan based on a state housing needs assessment, as well as participate in long-term planning to stop sprawl and address environmental concerns, like greenhouse gas emissions, air pollution and limited water.

Tier 1 cities have the option of meeting minimum land-use requirements set by the state, which the governor’s office refers to as the “flexible option.” If not, they would be forced to adopt a state-developed land-use code. The state code would be created by Colorado Department of Local Affairs regulators at a later date.

Tier 1 cities would have to submit codes compliant with the bill to the state by December 2024. Any Tier 1 cities that don’t meet the minimum standards under the legislation’s so-called “flexible option” would be forced to operate under the model land-use code starting in December 2025.

Tier 2

Cities in this category include Dacono, Fort Lupton, Firestone, Frederick, Evans, Berthoud, Johnstown, Timnath, Eaton, Miliken, Severance and Monument. 

They are defined as cities in a metropolitan planning organization that have a population of between 5,000 and 25,000 and in a county with a population greater than 250,000. 

Tier 2 cities would be prohibited from restricting accessory-dwelling units and parking associated with ADUs, though they would be able to block duplexes, triplexes and multiplexes. They would also be exempt from provisions around transit centers and corridors. 

They would, however, still be required to conduct housing needs assessments and create the same type of long-term housing and sprawl and environmental plans. 

Tier 2 cities would have to submit codes compliant with the bill to the state by December 2024. Any Tier 1 cities that don’t meet the minimum standards under the legislation’s so-called “flexible option” would be forced to operate under the model land-use code starting in December 2025.

Rural resort job centers

This category includes Aspen, Avon, Breckenridge, Crested Butte, Dillon, Durango, Frisco, Glenwood Springs, Mountain Village, Silverthorne, Snowmass Village, Steamboat Springs, Telluride, Vail and Winter Park.

Rural resort job centers are defined as municipalities that have a population of at least 1,000 and at least 1,200 jobs and are outside of a metropolitan planning organization. They also have regional transit service with at least 20 trips per day.

This category is intended to prompt local governments to work with their surrounding region to address housing shortfalls. The communities would be required to allow ADUs but then have to develop a regional housing needs plan to identify where zoning should happen for duplexes, triplexes and other multiplexes. The communities would also have to work together to boost transit corridors and housing surrounding them.

“There’s often a dynamic in rural areas where people may live in one community but work in another, and because of that the additional flexibility is that they can reach agreements with their partner communities to have a more regional approach to some of the goals that are in the bill,” Moreno said. 

Silver Queen Gondola at the ski area on Friday, Feb. 11, 2022 in Aspen. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Like Tier 1 and Tier 2 cities, rural resort job centers would have the ability to choose between a minimum level of housing policies while maintaining some of their own design standards or be forced to adopt a model land-use code that will be created by the state. The specifics on those two options are not laid out in the bill and would be determined later by state regulators.

“The goals aren’t as stringent as the (ones for) urban municipalities,” said Moreno.

Rural resort job centers would have to submit land-use codes compliant with the bill to the state by December 2026. Any rural resort job centers that don’t meet the minimum standards under the bill’s flexible option would have to operate under the state’s model land-us code starting in June 2027.

Non-urban municipalities

Any municipality with a population greater than 5,000 falls into this category — as long as it’s not in another category — including Alamosa, Brush, Cañon City, Carbondale, Cortez, Craig, Eagle, Fort Morgan, Gunnison, La Junta, Lamar, Montrose, Rifle, Sterling, Trinidad and Wellington.

Non-urban municipalities would be prohibited from restricting accessory-dwelling units but won’t have requirements around duplexes, triplexes and other multiplexes or transit-oriented development. They also won’t need to prepare a housing needs plan. 

Jesse Paul is a Denver-based political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is the author of The Unaffiliated newsletter and also occasionally fills in on breaking news coverage....

Elliott Wenzler wrote about politics, water, housing, and other topics for The Colorado Sun from October 2022 through September 2023. She has covered community issues in Colorado since 2019, including for Colorado Community Media. She has been...