Government & Politics  January 1, 2023

Land-use debate polarizes Fort Collins

FoCo council’s choice: Repeal revamped housing code or let voters decide

FORT COLLINS — Drastically altered changes to Fort Collins’ land-use codes passed by the City Council on Nov. 1, which have triggered the city’s most polarizing policy debate since last decade’s issue of erecting an on-campus football stadium at Colorado State University, could be headed for the ballot box this year.

Preserve Fort Collins, a group headed by former City Council member Ross Cunniff — who also opposed construction of the new stadium — has gathered enough petition signatures to force council members at their next meeting Jan. 17 to suspend the changes and either repeal the ordinance themselves or choose to refer the issue to voters as a ballot initiative.

Ross Cunniff

“Those are the only two choices they have,” Cunniff said.

Contending that Fort Collins needed more capacity, diversity and affordability in housing, that the code needed to be easier to understand and that housing development reviews needed to be more predictable, the City Council on Nov. 1 gave second-reading approval to a sweeping, 470-page measure that would, among other things, change the name of the “land-use code” to “land-development code” and would, among other things, eliminate zones just for single-family homes in low-density neighborhoods, thus allowing secondary structures such as carriage houses or tiny homes on residential lots, and substantially cut back on the public-hearing process.

The code passed on a 5-2 vote, but council members Kelly Ohlson and Susan Gutowsky strongly dissented. Ohlson charged that the revised code had been formulated by “vested economic interests” through a “rigged system,” and Gutowsky pleaded with the rest of the council to put off a vote until more citizen input could be considered, repeatedly asking, “What’s the rush?”

Some residents who came to the microphones complained that they’d had no warning that these changes were in the works — although council members and city staffers who supported the revision pointed out that the changes followed five years of community engagement and more than 15 months of work by city planners.

Opponents also said they feared for their property values and increased traffic if the house next door could be “scraped” and replaced with a duplex or triplex.

The council majority, Cunniff said, “didn’t seem to be welcoming of citizen concerns, and that’s what led to our petition effort.”

A week and a half after the council’s vote, Cunniff filed a protest on behalf of Preserve Fort Collins. After getting petition language approved on Nov. 20, his group began circulating them on Nov. 29.

That same day, the Fort Collins Area Chamber of Commerce sent out a mass email containing a letter from Ann Hutchison, its president and CEO, pleading with residents to refuse to sign the petition, to advise their friends and associates not to sign as well, and to attend informational meetings the chamber would schedule to correct what it called misinformation from Cunniff and his group.

An advocacy organization, FoCo Forward, also put up a website, focoforward.org, countering the opposition claims at preservefortcollins.org. That group, Hutchison told BizWest, is “an independent organization being supported by 28 different community groups in expressing support for the land-development code as it was approved by council.”

Ann Hutchison

FoCo Forward’s website, explaining that the existing code was last updated in 1997, said “the new code puts our climate, transit and housing goals into action. Our city deserves an updated plan that allows Fort Collins to grow gracefully and responsibly in the decades to come.”

Another group, NoCo Housing Now, a coalition including the chamber as well as the cities of Greeley and Fort Collins, Larimer and Weld counties, the town of Windsor, Fort Collins Habitat for Humanity, the Northern Colorado Home Builders Association, the NoCo Rental Housing Association, IRES and the Fort Collins Board of Realtors, also has posted information about the new codes. Hutchison said NoCo Housing Now was started five years ago by the Board of Realtors, but the chamber has since assumed its leadership, but “not necessarily in an advocacy role.”

At a Nov. 18 meeting of the NoCo Housing Now partnership, it said the housing market has developed with a “missing middle.”

“Communities across the country are now beginning to recognize that suburban-style development has crowded out a more diverse mix of housing types that were commonplace prior to the 1950s,” NoCo Housing Now’s website stated. “Community planning tended to emphasize uniformity within residential areas such that single-family detached housing predominated with higher density multifamily housing situated in distinctly separate neighborhoods. Duplexes, small apartment buildings, condominiums and other housing types have become all but forgotten.”

Meanwhile, Preserve Fort Collins’ website alleges that the council’s action was “prioritizing profits before people. Choosing expediency and old fashioned cronyism over transparency and good governance, our City Council voted quietly and quickly to turn most of Fort Collins into a free-for-all for housing developers and investors.”

Cunniff and his group had 20 days to collect signatures, and on Dec. 19 he turned in 347 petition sections to City Clerk Anissa Hollingshead. “Within a few days,” he said, “the clerk determined we had more than were required,” and on Friday morning he was told that the effort was certified, forcing the council to decide either to repeal the new code or refer the issue to voters, either in a special municipal election or as part of a general election ballot in November.

“We got over 6,447 signatures verified, and we just needed 4,228,” Cunniff said.

He doesn’t dispute the need for more affordable housing, but noted that “it’s worse to pretend to do something, pat yourself on the back and stop worrying about it, than it is to do nothing.

“I think the council was well-intentioned, and were told by a variety of consultants that this would be an affordability solution,” Cunniff said, “but we all have a speculation” — echoed by Ohlson at the Nov. 1 council meeting — “that it represented basically a business opportunity for many of the chamber members.”

Claims and counterclaims on the websites present a night-and-day view of the issue, especially in the area of accountability to the public.

Claiming as Gutowski did that “the council adopted this in a great hurry,” Cunniff said one of the biggest problems with the new code is “the elimination of neighborhood hearings, moving most decisions into the hands of the staff. We didn’t think that fits the tradition of accessible government in Fort Collins.”

Noting that the new code would allow duplexes and triplexes in all zones that had been designated for single-family residential construction, Cunniff noted on the Preserve Fort Collins website that, “with these land-use code changes, developers could put up a triplex next to you with inadequate notification and no neighborhood meeting. The first time you would find out about it might be when the bulldozer shows up next door. And then it will be too late to do anything.“

Not so, says FoCo Forward.

“The updated code encourages and ensures opportunities for early public involvement,” it says. While acknowledging that “housing projects in many zones will be subject to a Basic Development Review with no public hearing and staff decision-making,” it contends that “no changes have been made to public notification processes. Yellow ‘Development Under Review’ signs, mailed notices, email newsletters and other notification processes remain the same.” Development-review decisions, FoCo Forward says, “can also be appealed, which triggers a public hearing with the Planning and Zoning Commission, and their decision could also be appealed to City Council.”

The aim, FoCo Forward said, is to make new building and design standards “clearer and more predictable, allowing for less subjectivity and limiting staff discretion in reviewing projects.”

Cunniff charged that the code enabled construction of additional dwelling units on residential lots “without updating the short-term rental code” and, “given the history of how available capital has flowed, there would be a significant pull for people to do that at higher than residential rental rates.”

He also noted that the push for increased density was done “regardless of the accessibility to transit or whether utility infrastructure would support it.”

Cunniff also said there is no guarantee that the increased density would generate more affordable housing because the market, not land-use codes, would determine housing sale and rental prices. “Increased supply is not increased affordability,” he said.

FoCo Forward disputes many of those points.

“Small multi-family buildings will be allowed only in neighborhoods zoned for them if at least one unit is set aside as an affordable home,” it said. “These changes are paired with stronger, market-calibrated incentives to build affordable housing units in mixed-use areas and along major transportation corridors throughout the city.”

The code, it noted, sets specific affordability standards, requiring projects to provide one of the following minimum options:

For residences to be rented: 10% of units at 60% of area median income or 20% of units at 80% AMI.

For residences to be sold: 10% of units at 80% AMI or 20% of units at 100% AMI.

Addressing Cunniff’s group’s claim that “the new rules would accelerate gentrification and push workers, the middle class and renters further to the fringes while enriching real-estate developers and speculators,” FoCo Forward said it sees the updated code as reducing wealth disparities “by increasing homeownership opportunities and affordable-housing options. Specific changes in the code facilitate greater access to jobs, education and critical services to improve economic prosperity and reduce poverty rates.”

The new code, it said, “increases housing equity by expanding housing supply, diversifying home prices and addressing disproportionate poverty rates for residents of color,” and the website drives home that point by featuring a slideshow that includes images of Black and Latino families.

Hutchison’s email pointed out that “from 2012 to 2016, lot costs quadrupled, meaning that before a developer could even start building a house, they would have had over $125,000 in pre-development costs between land and permits alone. Having the ability to build paired single-family homes (also known as a duplex) enables housing providers to cut down the cost by one-third –allowing providers to serve more families.”

The changes to the code also apply to neighborhoods controlled by homeowners’ associations. Planning manager Rebecca Everette told a Nov. 29 information session hosted by the city that “any HOA covenants that directly conflict or impede implementation of the city’s housing policies adopted in the Housing Strategic Plan would be superseded by the land development code.” That means if an HOA had rules about building height, occupancy or whether and how many duplexes or triplexes would be allowed in an area it controls, those rules would have to be changed to fit the new land-development code.

To Preserve Fort Collins’ concern that the city’s “quality of life is at risk, under pressure from big-money interests and a government all too willing to go along with them,” FoCo Forward asserted that, “as can be observed in other communities with similar land use policies, such as Denver, allowing one additional living unit on a residential lot does not offer the necessary scale or investment return potential to attract speculators and large real-estate interests.”

Which organization’s predictions are more accurate? It’s a strong possibility that, peppered by heavy doses of direct-mail and media entreaties from both sides, Fort Collins voters will make the final judgment.

Editor’s note: This article has been corrected to make clear that FoCo Forward is not a group or website directed by the Fort Collins Chamber of Commerce, and the other organization’s name is NoCo Housing Now, not NoCo Now.

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