In the last week, city councilmembers in Broomfield, Lafayette, Longmont and Louisville have all voiced some level of opposition to a Colorado bill backed by Gov. Jared Polis that would rein in their power over local zoning and land-use policies.
Unlike most of these local governments, the governor’s hometown of Boulder has decided to not yet oppose the bill outright. But city officials and councilmembers have raised major objections.
Polis has made increasing the supply of housing one of his top priorities this legislative session. Broadly speaking, the legislation aims to increase housing density as a way to potentially drive down costs and reduce greenhouse gas emissions associated with suburban sprawl and daily commuting.
On Wednesday, April 5, councilmembers who serve on Boulder’s Intergovernmental Affairs Committee — Mayor Aaron Brockett, Lauren Folkerts, Matt Benjamin and Tara Winer — came up with a list of recommended amendments to the bill that seek to protect the city’s authority over certain land-use and zoning policies. The Boulder City Council is scheduled to adopt a formal position on April 20.
A source of friction could be the city’s likely stance on occupancy limits that restrict how many people can live together in the same home. A provision in the bill would make it illegal for cities to limit the number of unrelated people who can live together based on their family status. Councilmembers indicated they want to maintain their authority to regulate occupancy based on an “extremely liberal” definition of family.
City of Boulder planners are working on an ordinance that would raise the city’s home occupancy limits to as many as five across the city. Currently, no more than three unrelated people can live together in certain zoning districts.
Representatives from the Bedrooms Are For People campaign, which sought to raise the city’s occupancy limits through an unsuccessful 2021 ballot measure, said the bill would “prohibit discriminatory limits on housing based on relationship status.”
“It is unacceptable that the City of Boulder would oppose the governor and state leaders in their efforts to prohibit exclusionary housing policies,” Eric Budd and Chelsea Castellano, the campaign’s co-chairs, told Boulder Reporting Lab in an email.
The councilmembers also suggested they want legislators to scale back a provision in the bill allowing “middle housing” in single-family neighborhoods. Middle housing includes duplexes, triplexes, townhomes and buildings with as many as six housing units.
More than half of Boulder’s residential land area is zoned to only allow single-family homes, according to city data. Councilmembers recommended only allowing homes with as many as four housing units on the same property in single-family zoning districts. They cited concerns over the potential strain on infrastructure, like sewage and water lines, and impacts on the character of neighborhoods, such as Martin Acres.
Despite their objections to certain provisions, that councilmembers support allowing up to four-unit buildings in single-family neighborhoods represents a major policy shift for the council. Such efforts in the past have been met with opposition from residents, prompting councilmembers to backpedal.
However, should the bill pass, the practical effects of such a policy change remain unclear.
Councilmembers said they want to ensure that the city’s existing building design standards, such as maximum floor area ratios that limit how big an overall structure can be on a single lot, still apply. In other cities that have eliminated single-family zoning but kept similar limits on how much of a lot is buildable, the effect has been to restrict new multi-unit developments, research has shown.
The councilmembers are also supporting a provision to allow accessory dwelling units, or ADUs — which are smaller homes built in basements, garages or backyards — in all single-family neighborhoods.
City planners are already rewriting the city’s ADU regulations to repeal limits on how many can be built in certain neighborhoods, among other changes. But the bill would go further by prohibiting rules that make it harder to build and rent them out, such as requirements that the owner of the ADU live in the primary residence or that they provide off-street parking.
Councilmembers said they may want to keep the city’s ADU parking requirements. That’s in part because the city uses such requirements as a way to get more affordable housing built. For example, property owners who agree to cap the rent at their ADUs can, in exchange, build them without providing an off-street parking spot.
In the weeks ahead, the bill is expected to change. Its sponsors are planning to introduce amendments aimed at increasing affordability requirements, providing flexibility around parking regulations, and reducing the number of housing units allowed on a single lot from six to four.
The city’s decision for how to lobby on the bill comes as the local election season gets under way. This November, city voters will elect a mayor and four city councilmembers. One member of council has already been accused of an ethical violation by a resident after testifying on a separate Colorado bill, highlighting the current politically charged climate and the stakes involved when councilmembers decide to weigh in on controversial state legislation.