Vail, Avon leaders testify in opposition to sweeping Colorado land-use bill during marathon Senate hearing
Local communities push for amendments to the bill in order to maintain and protect their efforts toward affordable housing
Leaders from the towns of Avon and Vail and the local water district and authority testified Thursday in opposition to a sweeping land-use bill during a marathon Senate committee hearing at the state Capitol. The committee hearing saw some 12 hours of testimony from nearly 300 Coloradans representing municipalities, environmental groups, developers, transit groups and more.
Senate Bill 23-213, which was introduced in March by Gov. Jared Polis and Democratic state lawmakers, aims to address the statewide housing crisis by imposing substantial planning and mandatory land-use regulations on municipalities across the state in an effort to increase residential density. It would provide requirements around accessory dwelling units, middle housing, transit-oriented areas, key corridors as well as manufactured and modular homes.
Since being introduced, the bill has been fiercely opposed by various municipalities and government groups across the state (particularly amid mountain resort communities). Thursday’s hearing in front of the Senate Local Government and Housing Committee represented the first public forum in which Coloradans could give testimony to the bill’s impacts.
In addition to Vail and Avon, state senators heard comments from various mayors and council members in opposition to the bill, urging that land use remain an issue of local control. The 12-hour hearing included comments from both Front Range communities such as Colorado Springs, Broomfield and Commerce City and from mountain communities such as Breckenridge, Crested Butte, Aspen, Vail and more.
There were also various entities — primarily development companies, transit groups, environmental groups and some private residents — that spoke in support of the bill, believing it would have the desired impact of creating more housing.
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“Every Coloradan deserves a safe and affordable place to live, and this proposal will create a smart, holistic approach to expand the menu of housing options families and communities are able to choose from,” said Sen. Majority Leader Dominick Moreno, whose district includes Adams and Arapahoe counties, in a press release. “We heard lots of useful feedback on these ideas today, and I was encouraged to see the level of enthusiasm around this transformative policy. I am committed to addressing concerns stakeholders may have and finding a balance that works across Colorado. But one thing remains clear: working Coloradans are tired of being priced out of where they live, and we’re going to continue fighting to cut red tape and expand our housing supply so that Colorado families have a place to call home.”
Last week, 15 member communities of the Colorado Association of Ski Towns that are defined as “rural resort job centers” by the bill presented their opposition in letters sent to the governor’s office and legislators. Both Avon and Vail were part of this group of communities, which were taking a position of “oppose unless amended.”
On Thursday, several of these communities shared these concerns with the Senate committee, but also all agreed with the bill’s overall target to increase housing and mentioned their ongoing efforts to do just that.
“The town of Vail emphatically shares the sense of urgency around the issue of affordable housing, ensuring the availability of deed-restricted, resident-occupied homes for Vail residents is our No. 1 priority,” said Russ Forrest, Vail’s town manager, on Thursday.
The bill’s proposed mechanisms to achieve the goal of creating affordable housing, however, have drawn opposition from local officials.
“Our primary objection to the bill is that it mandates land-use requirements that may create additional free-market units, but not affordable housing for our employees,” Forrest said. “In Vail, as in other communities, the only way new dwelling units are affordable over time is with the application of a deed restriction to ensure local employees are occupying the units.”
“In rural resort communities, as in many others, increasing supply does not equal affordability,” said Aspen Mayor Torre in his testimony.
One of the primary concerns with the bill voiced by mountain communities is that it may preclude deed restrictions, worker occupation restrictions and other policies to ensure affordability.
“The bill could preclude deed restrictions in that they could be determined to ‘create unreasonable costs or delay,'” Forrest said.
The bill, as currently written, would create new mandates around zoning and housing requirements, which represents a change in approach that many communities are against.
“We are already doing everything we can and are very actively committed to the goals of this legislation and we really find that what we need as a community is more carrots and not some new sticks,” said Avon Mayor Amy Phillips.
Forrest similarly suggested that “partnership in creating incentives, particularly with grants as (Department of Local Affairs) has done in the past years, is the best way forward and is preferable to blanket, top-down land use mandates.”
Robert Sheesley — who spoke as general counsel for the Colorado Municipal League, which has taken a strictly oppose stance on the bill — said Thursday that these goals around housing could be addressed “without blunt legislation, without blunt mandates, without unconstitutional preemptions and without the dangerous, ambitious and over-broad language that leads to severe consequences for municipalities and their residents.”
There were some measures in the bill that garnered support from some of the Western Slope communities. Forrest said that the town of Vail and other Colorado Association of Ski Towns communities supported the bill’s proposals for a statewide regional housing needs assessment as well as the formation of a rural resort task force comprised of the 15 rural resort communities.
Increasing residential density is one of the main mechanisms by which the proposed bill aims to address the housing crisis, which is something over which many mountain communities have expressed concerns.
“Upzoning does not consider specific challenges in our individual communities such as life safety considerations, utility easements, drainage needs, snow storage, water and infrastructure capacities,” Torre said.
Put more bluntly, Breckenridge’s Mayor Eric Mamula said: “We know what our limits in our community are. If you open this up to a Wild West, anything goes, as much density as you can, you will ruin my town. And that is not hyperbole, that is fact.”
Not enough water
One of the challenges expressed by communities in increasing density was the stress it could put on local infrastructure.
“While we appreciate the housing goals of SB23-213, we have concerns regarding unintended consequences of unplanned growth from upzoning of single-family properties given the District and Authority’s limited physical and legal water supplies,” wrote the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District and Upper Eagle Regional Water Authority in a letter to Sen. Dylan Roberts earlier in the week.
Kristin Moseley, a water rights attorney, spoke as counsel for the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District and Upper Eagle Regional Water Authority at Thursday’s hearing, addressing some of the concerns these water entities saw in the bill as written.
When asked outright by Roberts, who is a member of the Senate local government and housing committee, whether or not the Eagle River valley has enough water to accommodate the anticipated growth from the bill, Moseley responded simply: “We do not.”
“We have water for areas that have been planned,” Moseley said. “We’re obviously always trying to get additional buffers and additional storage, but we do not have enough water for every single single-family house to have a guest house.”
One of the other concerns expressed by Moseley on Thursday was that the bill, as written, would strip the water providers’ ability to serve new developments with an ability to serve.
“(The) ability to serve process is very essential; it’s what keeps us from going over our skis and not having enough water for development that’s been platted,” Moseley said. “We work very closely with Eagle County as well as the towns of Vail and Avon, which would be directly impacted by this bill every single time a proposed development comes through.”
The local water district and authority conducted a study to understand the exact impacts of the bill on its water infrastructure.
“We need to, in order to provide more water, we estimate that it would cost more than $325 million for infrastructure and obtaining additional water rights, which would also create an 80% increase for all of our rate payers, including folks that are already having a hard time would be paying additional rates for housing that wouldn’t necessarily assist with employee housing,” Mosley said.
According to the study, this could result in the average monthly water bill for local residents doubling from an average of $97 a month to $176 a month.
“That’s based on additional infrastructure requirements that would have to occur,” Moseley said. “In a mountain area, there’s huge lift areas, given the different altitude components of the service area. So, depending on where the growth occurs, there’s a lot more expense associated with it.”
Vail and Avon — as well as the other Colorado Association of Ski Towns communities — have all been working closely with legislators and the governor’s office since the land use bill was introduced to find ways that it would not have the unintended consequences many are fearing.
While Thursday’s Senate hearing was the bill’s first step through the Colorado General Assembly, the hope of communities is that it will undergo changes before reaching the governor’s desk.
“I think we’re all under the agreement that this bill is going to change significantly through amendments,” Roberts said on Thursday.
These proposed amendments — of which drafts were released on Twitter Thursday — could include changes to affordability requirements, rules for rural resort communities, parking requirements, streamlining implementation, and strengthening stakeholder input.
On affordability, some of the proposed amendments include establishing an “affordability menu in statute, while still preserving local flexibility,” strengthening affordability requirements in the model codes the bill provides, allowing communities to “maintain or adopt local inclusionary zoning ordinances, by revising economic infeasibility language” — the language Forrest referred to as possibly precluding deed restrictions — and more.
For rural resort communities, the proposed amendment reads that these communities “would only be subject to particular requirements.”
The two requirements listed include:
- Identifying options for regional housing needs plans and establishing targets
- Choosing from a menu of options to meet housing goals based on local affordability needs, with no requirements that would lead to zoning for increased density for second homes or short-term rentals
Summit County Commissioner Tamara Pogue, who spoke in support of the bill on Thursday, said that she felt strongly “the proposed rural resort amendment is necessary and will lead to more success in the long run.”
“It would provide a better approach to ensure that those who are already deeply engaged in this work are recognized and those who aren’t are motivated to do more. I also think it would provide a better pathway to protect affordability,” Pogue said. “We simply can’t afford to stand by as our fellow Coloradans struggle to build a life here.”
Any amendments are expected to be introduced and debated in the coming weeks as the bill continues through the Senate committee and larger assembly.
For the mountain communities that spoke Tuesday, many spoke of gratitude for the governor’s office and legislators’ work with them to address their concerns as well as a desire for this dialogue to continue.
“We as rural resort communities do believe that we should have a seat at the table to discuss and study all of these items further and hope that we can, at the very least, have an opt-out option for most of this,” said Heather Sloop, who serves on the Steamboat Springs City Council.
Mamula also proposed the notion of certain communities being able to opt out of the legislation.
“If you could prove that you were producing a certain amount of affordable workforce housing compared to your population size or whatever that you could get an opt-out from the bill, I’d love that,” Mamula said.
Ultimately, however, what the communities are all pushing for is preserving local control.
“We believe, as do the other municipalities you’ve heard from today that local government can most effectively balance the complex needs of our community, achieving our goals to create affordable housing and manage our natural and built environment through our land use code,” Forrest said.