Jared Polis Q&A: ‘We’re for anything and everything that leads to more housing’
Governor takes questions on state park at Sweetwater Lake, the future of Uinta Basin Railway plan, and education funding
Gov. Jared Polis is touring the Western Slope to discuss his goals for Colorado’s future, particularly on the topic of housing. On Thursday, Sept. 14, Polis stopped in EagleVail to sit down with the Vail Daily for a discussion about issues facing Eagle County and the Western Slope.
At the top of the list was Senate Bill 213, the cornerstone of the governor’s legislative agenda last session that sought to address the state’s housing crisis by imposing mandatory land use regulations with the aim of increasing housing density. The legislation received intense pushback from mountain communities and ultimately died in the Senate after Democrats were unable to agree on the terms. The bill will certainly resurface in the 2024 legislative session.
Polis, in a wide-ranging conversation, also answered questions about the opposition to a new state park at Sweetwater Lake in Garfield County, the future of the controversial Uinta Basin Railway plan, how the state is dealing with longer and more intense fire seasons, and the future of education funding in Colorado. He also deftly handled a question about the impact of Deion “Coach Prime” Sanders at the University of Colorado and this weekend’s big Rocky Mountain Showdown rivalry game in Boulder.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Let’s talk about Senate Bill 213. In Eagle County and a lot of the other mountain resort communities, a lot of the concerns were that it would undermine local efforts and actually have the inverse effect of what it was trying to do. As you prepare for the upcoming legislative session, what are your plans with that bill?
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We’re for anything and everything that leads to more housing that meets the dire need that we have here in the valley and across Colorado. There’s a particularly acute housing crisis in the High Country, but the Denver metro area has an average home price above $600,000 now. And so, it’s strangling our communities and we need to remove artificial restrictions and constraints on supply and allow more homes to be built — especially homes that are more affordable like duplexes, quadplexes, multi-family, accessory development units for long-term rent.
Are you working with these resort communities to help incorporate some of their feedback? A lot of the concern was that if we increase density like that in mountain communities, a lot of it’s going to be short-term rental property versus employee housing.
No, we’re very supportive of, as new units come online, empowering local governments to ensure through covenants that they’re long-term rental or owner-occupied. And we’ve been moving in that direction for years. It’s very important to have the flexibility to meet the local housing need.
Do you anticipate the bill will look pretty similar to how it looked?
It needs to be bigger and more. And you need to address some of these things like long-term, short-term rentals. You need to address financing, which is even more urgent now because mortgage interest rates have gone up. So, what type of support for homeowners can exist along with more affordable inventory? But all roads go through more homes being built near job centers. And the alternative is more congestion, more traffic, weaker communities where people that work in those communities can’t afford to live there, and poorer quality of life, frankly, where people are spending more of their time just getting an hour each way to and from work.
For this community, and in the High Country, the communities that people used to afford to be able to live in, like Leadville and Fairplay, are also now super expensive. Avon, when I was a kid, was affordable. Edwards was affordable after Avon. It’s a real crisis. It’ll keep getting worse until we take action. There’s no single silver bullet policy that can solve housing, but it takes a big, comprehensive approach to do it. We need to think bigger than we’ve ever thought before.
You’re aware there’s some strong opposition in Garfield County and in the Sweetwater community that’s part of Eagle County to create a new state park at Sweetwater Lake. Have you been considering any other alternatives? Are you still planning to move forward with those plans?
There was a discussion of having a golf course and a development there. And that’s why we stepped in with Eagle Valley Land Trust and announced that we were going to do a state park and it was going to be acquired. So, we don’t think it should be developed as a golf course and have high-end housing there. We’re talking about the need for housing, but we don’t desperately need $2 million homes on a golf course. So, I think that this pathway that we’ve identified to protect this for the community as a state park is exciting. And it’s one that Eagle Valley Land Trust helped make possible. It’s a very iconic area to recreate in.
I really think it will be an iconic part of our state park system. And I think we can successfully prevent development and multi-million-dollar homes and a golf course and keep it open to the public, which is our goal.
The Uinta Basin Railway plan has been stopped for now after the U.S. Court of Appeals agreed with Eagle County and several environmental groups and overturned federal approval, citing violations of the National Environmental Policy Act. Do you foresee this thing coming back? And what can you do to stop a rail line that would have trains carrying 225,000 to 350,000 barrels of crude oil every day along the Colorado River?
So, the only kind of nexus that we’ve seen to the state is we don’t want to use state taxpayer money to make improvements that they need for that train. We want to use our limited resources to make the improvements we need. Floyd Hill is an example. And we don’t want to have to divert any resources, and we won’t divert any resources if that were to go forward.
Last week was a pretty scary week here in Eagle County. We had a wildfire between Highway 6 and Interstate 70. We had ensuing gridlock. We also had worries that this was going to turn into a kind of Grizzly Creek situation, which we’re very fortunate didn’t happen. But with summers being hotter and drier, how prepared is Colorado to handle the new reality of fire season?
We’re more prepared than we ever were before, but the risk is also a lot higher than it ever was before. And the risk is higher for several reasons. One is climate change. The second is more utilization of our public lands and many of the fires people start. And the third is more people living in the wildland urban interface. So, what has the state done? We’ve acquired Firehawk helicopters, our own aerial capacity. We’ve deployed through Youth Conservation Corps and AmeriCorps active groups that are taking down trees and fuel near communities. I’ve joined them near Evergreen and Colorado Springs where they’re going out and doing perimeter defense around communities. We’ve upped the bar on supporting our local volunteer fire departments. We’ve been able to support them financially to help get the capital equipment that they need. So, we’re upping our response, but the need and the urgency are greater than ever before as well.
When it comes to education funding, one of the big things is this budget stabilization factor. You’ve made statements that you plan to buy that down. But one of the things that the superintendent here is super vocal about is that even if we were to buy down that factor, we would still be so far behind other states. What are you doing to get beyond just that to creatively help solve some of these challenges in better funding?
Well, we do expect that we will work with the legislature on a budget that will fully eliminate the budget stabilization factor for next school year, which is very exciting. And we know that districts will have discretion on how to use those additional resources. It usually means a combination of better teacher pay and smaller class sizes and more offerings for students — particularly enrichment offerings.
This is our first year of universal preschool, which every 4-year-old in Colorado can now go to preschool. Over 40,000 kids are in preschool. That’s about a 40% increase from the prior year now that it’s free. And we’re very excited about that as well and look forward to continuing to build that. There’s a ballot initiative, Prop II on the ballot that will allow some of the money that was already collected for preschool, tobacco, nicotine tax to be used for preschool because more money came in than the estimates.
With universal preschool, are there plans to sort of continue to expand that?
Our immediate plan is to get the universal program over the next couple of years up to 18 hours a week from 15 hours a week. So that’s what we’re working on. We’d also love to be able to support more families for full day that otherwise couldn’t afford full day. We certainly are supportive of more opportunities for 3-year-olds as well, particularly 3-year-olds from at-risk backgrounds.
Colorado and Colorado State play the Rocky Mountain Showdown on Saturday. Both national pregame shows are going to be there. Have you met Coach Prime? And how do you measure the impact of this?
I have met Coach Prime, and we’re very excited about the direction he’s taking the Buffs. There was also a good article that the Rams have a lot going on. Let me see the headline. This is about the Rams: “An Arnold Amateur Strongman champion, a sumo wrestler, two tribesmen, an openly gay defensive linesman, a 30-year-old father of three, and much more.” It says, “It’s the most interesting college football team in America.” So we’re excited. It’s going to be great for Colorado. With Joe Neguse, we did a press conference yesterday with both university presidents talking about kind of the economic impact of both universities and how even though we’re rivals on the field, they’ve co-authored over 1,900 scientific papers, billions of dollars of research, including collaborations between the two. And we’re excited that no matter who wins, it’ll be a Colorado team winning on Saturday.