Government & Politics  December 20, 2023

New petition forces Fort Collins council to again repeal its code changes

FORT COLLINS – For the second time in a year, a successful citizen-led petition drive has forced the Fort Collins City Council to repeal its approval of a massive rewrite of the city’s voluminous 25-year-old land-use code and go back to the drawing board.

Tuesday night’s 3-2 vote followed more than an hour and 20 minutes of comments from city residents, many of whom urged the council to instead choose the other option available to it under the city charter: submitting the revised code to a citywide vote sometime in 2024.

The council had faced the same charter-dictated choice in January when the Preserve Fort Collins citizens group’s first successful petition drive led it to repeal the rewrite of the code it had approved in November 2022 to increase housing density in the city in hopes of spurring more affordable and attainable housing choices. City staffers made some changes to their proposal over the summer, resubmitted it, and the council approved it on a  5-1 vote on Oct. 17. However, the citizens group launched another drive and again collected enough signatures to force the council to make the choice it made Tuesday.

Mayor Jeni Arndt, Mayor Pro Tem Emily Francis and council member Tricia Canonico voted to repeal the city’s second try at a revision and send it back to city staff for further tweaking, while council members Kelly Ohlson and Susan Gutowsky opposed the motion and favored submitting the decision to next year’s municipal ballot. Council member Julie Pignataro participated remotely because of illness and thus could not vote, and council member Shirley Peel, who had lost her bid for re-election on Nov. 7, left the chamber after tearfully receiving a unanimous vote of appreciation from her council colleagues.

Opponents have contended that both the city’s attempts at revising the code in a quest to add more diversity and attainability to Fort Collins’ housing stock virtually abolished single-family zoning and largely overrode homeowners’ association covenants with little respect for the expectations people had when they purchased their homes.

Although Ohlson acknowledged that “there are some very good things in the code,” he added that “people have expectations and predictability they thought they had in their existing neighborhoods, and it’s just not right to change, to me, the rules for people in their existing neighborhoods, historic neighborhoods, established neighborhoods.” Code changes, he argued, could be limited to already high-density areas, transit corridors and new infill or redevelopment areas.

Some members of the public who commented also urged the council to let voters decide on the new revision, but others urged it to again repeal the 500-page revision and resubmit it with better response to citizen concerns about HOA covenants, traffic impacts, parking and the allowance for additional dwelling units in areas that had been zoned for single-family residences. They pointed out that it’s the job of their elected representatives to wade through a complex code of more than 500 pages, much of which includes provisions that haven’t been protested.

One commenter went farther, contending that “voters are not necessarily bright or sophisticated – and I would offer as an example of that that in November of last year, the citizens of Fort Collins voted along with the rest of the state to make it perfectly legal for somebody like me to cultivate, consume and share psychedelic mushrooms without any medical supervision or any restrictions whatsoever – yet we don’t allow Uber to deliver a six-pack of beer to my house.

“So it’s not like the citizens of Fort Collins have this special power of understanding complex issues,” he said. “We vote with our emotions.”

Agreeing that “we were elected to do a job,” Arndt said the council had “very intentionally” approved the second revision in October, before the Nov. 7 municipal election, “so people would know what they were getting when they voted. … We all made it clear what we stood for when we were re-elected or elected.”

While opposing the revisions, Gutowsky defended the city staff’s work on the new code, and Francis and Canonico noted that the city had indeed listened to citizens’ concerns since the previous repeal.

Not changing in the revised code were review procedures, non-residential uses, historic preservation, occupancy limits and landscaping rules. In general, the new code would have increased housing types and number of units allowed in residential, mixed-use and commercial zones; reduced parking requirements for studio, one-, and two-bedroom units in multi-unit developments and affordable-housing developments with seven or more units; required parking for additional dwelling units; allowed ADUs in all residential and mixed-use zones with some requirements; created a menu of building types with zone-specific standards; and clarified language related to homeowners’ associations and private covenants. Under the new code, HOAs would have been prohibited from limiting the number and type of units permitted on a property, but could regulate aesthetics and determine whether ADUs are internal or external.

“I don’t favor the code in its first form or second form,” Ohlson said. “If it comes back in the third form, I hope I can support it, but my preference is a referral to the voters. I have trust in them that they can discern appropriately and make a wise decision.” He called the power of initiative and referendum a “sacred process” and a “very valid tool for the residents to have.”

He said he hoped the “pro-code” side would understand that “some of us actually who oppose the code are for affordable housing too and perhaps have some legitimate concerns that the code as currently written could actually harm affordable housing because of massive investments from outside and scrape-offs and those kinds of things.”

In also supporting sending the issue to the ballot, Gutowsky said any future changes to the code should also go to a public vote because “I honestly believe that we have a very intelligent and capable community that can understand what it is that they’re voting for.” She said any future revisions should contain stronger provisions pushing developers to include affordable housing.

Although noting that the changes adopted last year and in October were “bigger than we normally do,” Arndt pointed out the code is a “living, breathing document” because “I don’t know if people who follow City Council know that we change the land-use code routinely through more minor ordinances.”

Recalling her past enjoyment of the city’s more open portions, she said that “I was sad when that more rural part of our city went away, but I understand that cities grow and change. I echo the sentiment of someone who said it was great then, but I feel like it’s great now and it’ll be great in the future. That’s what we’re trying to do.

“If we sent it back to the ballot, we would be remiss in parts of the zoning code,” Arndt said. “I think that we need to go forward. We could take those more contentious parts and pull them out individually and discuss them and modify them and pass them individually. We could refer individual parts to the ballot.

“But I think there’s so much in the actual form and function of the 500-page code that I think that we can reach agreement on and then keep the discussion going on the more contentious parts.”

Council members were advised by city staff that they could vote on a new code in January when the newly elected panel is seated or put it off until later in 2024, but Arndt, Francis and Canonico opted to bring the issue back for discussion at a January work session, sending proposed changes to the Planning and Zoning Commission, then possibly holding another vote as early as February.

FORT COLLINS – For the second time in a year, a successful citizen-led petition drive has forced the Fort Collins City Council to repeal its approval of a massive rewrite of the city’s voluminous 25-year-old land-use code and go back to the drawing board.

Tuesday night’s 3-2 vote followed more than an hour and 20 minutes of comments from city residents, many of whom urged the council to instead choose the other option available to it under the city charter: submitting the revised code to a citywide vote sometime in 2024.

The council had faced the same charter-dictated choice in January when…

Dallas Heltzell
With BizWest since 2012 and in Colorado since 1979, Dallas worked at the Longmont Times-Call, Colorado Springs Gazette, Denver Post and Public News Service. A Missouri native and Mizzou School of Journalism grad, Dallas started as a sports writer and outdoor columnist at the St. Charles (Mo.) Banner-News, then went to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch before fleeing the heat and humidity for the Rockies. He especially loves covering our mountain communities.
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