Government & Politics  January 17, 2024

Fort Collins council eyes trimmed-down land-use code 3.0

FORT COLLINS — The city’s third try to rewrite its voluminous 26-year-old land-use code will likely be without its most-controversial parts — for now, anyway.

Fort Collins City Council members, at a work session that followed Tuesday’s regular meeting, were mostly supportive of the city staff’s new effort toward increasing density in hopes of spurring more affordable and attainable housing choices.

But the two who have opposed the changes all along, council members Kelly Ohlson and Susan Gutowsky, stuck to their support for citizens whose petition drives had successfully derailed the city’s first two attempts, contending that the quest to add diversity and attainability to Fort Collins’ housing stock would virtually abolish single-family zoning and largely override homeowners’ association covenants with little respect for the expectations people had when they purchased their homes.

The revisions “should have left existing neighborhoods alone,” Ohlson said, contending that’s why the “bad code” was rejected twice. He said the changes were “divisive” and created “unnecessary angst and anxiety.”

He also rejected what he said was a narrative that the existing code passed in 1997 was outdated, pointing out the many amendments to it that have been passed since then.

The new rewrite presented Tuesday by staffers led by Caryn Champine, the city’s director of planning, development and transportation, would maintain the guiding principles behind the first two revisions but without nine of the provisions that had raised the most citizen ire:

  • For the “residential low density” or RL zone, which makes up 23% of Fort Collins’ land area, the new code would remove accessory dwelling units as a permitted housing type and decrease maximum density permitted on a lot.
  • For the “Neighborhood Conservation, Low Density” or NCL zone, also known as Old Town A, which includes 1.4% of the city’s land area, the revision would remove duplexes as a permitted housing type, maintain current lot sizes for residential units and remove the affordable-housing incentives for additional housing types such as apartments, rowhouses or cottage courts.
  • For the “Neighborhood Conservation, Medium Density” or NCM zone district, also known as Old Town B, which makes up 1.5% of the city, the potential revisions would maintain the current four-unit maximum for multi-unit buildings, maintain current lot sizes for residential units and remove the affordable-housing incentive of adding a unit of additional density.
  • For housing governed by more than 200 registered HOAs in Fort Collins, which vary based on neighborhood size, housing type and the types of things their covenants address, the potential revisions would remove language prohibiting the HOAs from regulating the number and/or type of dwelling units permitted on a lot and remove language prohibiting them from regulating the ability to subdivide property.

Gutowsky asked whether the omissions were “an attempt to indicate that yes, we hear you and those things are no longer going to be a part,” and Champine responded that “the list was developed based on all the public testimony” and the complaints that “got the most energy.” She said the intent was, “Here’s what we think will make the biggest impact on listening to the community.”

However, new council member Melanie Potyondy said she was “discouraged that a wide variety of housing types are taken out of this plan” and that, in hopes of making housing more affordable or attainable, it “doesn’t feel great to see that onus being taken away from HOAs and not shared.”

Opponents, however, have complained all along that there were no teeth behind the affordability goal and that developers could swoop in, scrape existing housing and replace it with denser developments at market rates.

The trimmed-down rewrite presented Tuesday showed signs of the tortured path the quest has taken.

The Preserve Fort Collins citizens group’s first successful petition drive forced the council in January 2023 to choose between repealing the massive rewrite of the code it had approved in November 2022 or submitting what it rebranded as a “land development code” to voters. It chose to repeal the rewrite, pledging to listen more to citizen concerns. 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 collected enough signatures to force the council to again repeal its approval on Dec. 19 — also rejecting a chorus of pleas to put the changes on the municipal ballot.

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. 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 were internal or external.

Champine said the new draft presented Tuesday would still be governed by the “five guiding principles” the previous council confirmed:

  • Increase overall housing capacity (market rate and affordable) and calibrate market-feasible incentives for deed-restricted affordable housing.
  • Enable more affordability, especially near high frequency transit and growth areas. 
  • Allow for more diverse housing choices that fit in with the existing context. 
  • Make the code easier to use and understand.
  • Improve predictability of the development review process, especially for housing.

Going forward, under what she called “Work Stream No. 1,” the staff will work to fix some aspects of the existing 1997 land-use code “that make it difficult to use and understand, especially without graphic representations of form-based requirements and illogical organization of the code section.”

Under “Work Stream No. 2,” she said, the staff will present the draft code that removes the controversial items at a hearing of the Planning and Zoning Commission in February or March, followed by a first reading of the ordinance in March or April and a second reading and potential approval in April or May.

“Work Stream No. 3,” in which some of the deleted provisions could be reconsidered later this year, drew more fire from Ohlson, who predicted that the Colorado Legislature and governor would “do the dirty work for us,” passing “cookie-cutter” things that were rejected twice in Fort Collins. “If they haven’t,” he said, “then we’re going to bring them back piecemeal” in a way that “makes it impossible to refer them” to voters. He called the tactic “non-transparent gamesmanship” that “seems like divide and conquer. We’re going to take these out and then bring most of them back for individual consideration. Some may be referred to voters, some not.”

Ohlson’s preference, he said, was to “pass the remaining part of the code and then let it be.”

However, Mayor Pro Tem Emily Francis pointed out that other “community members have requested additional dialogue on some of the controversial items.” 

Gutowsky suggested that this time, community involvement in the process could be enhanced if the city would “do something similar with what was done with the homeless situation,” in which city officials and citizens sat and conversed instead of adhering to rigid rules.

The Colorado General Assembly tried and failed to pass statewide land-use reform last year, but will try again in the session that convened last week with new bills that are designed to help implement Proposition 123, which was passed by voters in a 2022 statewide ballot measure that designates some tax money for affordable-housing programs.

Bills to be introduced this session, designed to kick-start more affordable housing in the state, include measures that would allow more dense transit-oriented development, prohibit most housing occupancy limits, block minimum parking requirements that add to builders’ costs, and prohibit cities from banning or strictly limiting the construction of ADUs.

“Let’s wait to see what the Legislature does,” said Mayor Jeni Arndt at the end of Tuesday’s work session, adding that for now, “we need the bones of the code without the controversial parts.”

FORT COLLINS — The city’s third try to rewrite its voluminous 26-year-old land-use code will likely be without its most-controversial parts — for now, anyway.

Fort Collins City Council members, at a work session that followed Tuesday’s regular meeting, were mostly supportive of the city staff’s new effort toward increasing density in hopes of spurring more affordable and attainable housing choices.

But the two who have opposed the changes all along, council members Kelly Ohlson and Susan Gutowsky, stuck to their support for citizens whose petition drives had successfully derailed the city’s first two attempts, contending that the quest to add diversity…

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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