State is heading toward a clash with cities over new housing


On January 17, in his 2023 State of the State speech, Governor Jared Polis focused on the topic of housing. He introduced it with, “Many Coloradans are struggling to find a place where they can afford to live. Many more are being forced out of their neighborhoods with no hope of ever living close to where they work. That means more traffic, lost time and money spent on long commutes, more air pollution, and greater economic and workforce challenges, adding, “This is far beyond just a local problem.” 

Emphasizing the direct connection of housing to other key policy areas, the governor said, “Housing policy is climate policy. Housing policy is transportation policy. Housing policy is economic policy. Housing policy is water policy. Housing policy is public health and equity policy.”

Other key points Polis made included, “Since issues like transportation, water, energy, and more, inherently cross jurisdictional boundaries, it becomes a statewide problem… It’s clear that the actions of just one jurisdiction impact others, especially when it comes to housing, our environment, transportation systems, roads and transit, water and sewer infrastructure, and indeed our economic prosperity and growth…We need to bring our land use policy into the 21st century… We need more flexible zoning to allow more housing, streamlined regulations that cut through red tape, expedited approval process for projects like modular housing, sustainable development, building in transit-oriented communities that in and of itself empower the ability to deliver more transit at a low cost.”

One of the bedrock values of the home rule cities and towns in Colorado that contain over 90% of the state’s population is local control of land use and zoning decisions. After the governor’s speech, Assistant House Minority Leader Rose Pugliese, a former county commissioner, said that state government should take care to “stay in its lane and not usurp local government authority.”

Closer to home, at the Greenwood Village City Council meeting on January 9, Mayor George Lantz pointed out that actions expected by the state legislature, “May not be in the best interests of our community or other communities.” GV’s city attorney said that the issue “seems to be headed” to a legal showdown, pointing out, “The state can declare something a matter of statewide concern. That doesn’t mean it is. That’s for the courts to decide….Local control over zoning is huge and that’s the one where they’re (the state) going to get sued first….I’m coordinating with other city attorneys. We are under attack.” 

One need only look at the changes made by the GV City Council to its comprehensive plan in 2018 to understand the power of the issue. Prior to 2018, the city’s plan, written in 2015, contained policies like, “Encourage the diversity of housing types which allows a mixture of socio-economic situations within the Village, and choice of lifestyles,” and, “Ensure the availability of a variety of residential housing types within the City.”

GV’s 2015 plan also stated its intention to, “encourage transit-oriented development at the proposed Orchard Light Rail Station to support ridership (of light rail) and reduce traffic congestion.”

In 2018, the GV City Council revised its comprehensive plan and excised those entire sections, along with all references to the Orchard Light Rail Station, an area where there has been almost no development or redevelopment in the five years since. Also excised in 2018 was the whole section of GV’s plan that talked about housing in the Interstate Corridor Planning Area, as well as the words “transit-oriented development” anyplace they had previously appeared.

Governor Polis’ has talked about increasing transit-oriented development in the metro area to address the housing shortage. Transit-oriented development is, by definition, adjacent to or near light rail stations, like the two in GV at Orchard Road and at Arapahoe Road. Unless the city revises its comprehensive plan again to allow for the possibility of any type of residential development in proximity to either or both locations, it could only happen if the state declares land use and zoning a matter of statewide concern, which, if successful, would give the state the ability to override cities’ policies in that area. All indications are that that won’t happen without a fight. Stay tuned.