Government & Politics  May 8, 2024

Fort Collins’ 3rd try at land-use code wins final OK

FORT COLLINS — Fort Collins finally has a new land-use code with which even most of its critics can live.

After having two of its attempts to rewrite the city’s 27-year-old land-use code overturned by citizen-initiated petitions, the Fort Collins City Council on Tuesday night gave unanimous final approval to a stripped-down but “foundational” version that would still add density and at least encourage more diverse, attainable and affordable housing choices.

“We have a mismatch of what we need and what we’re building,” said Mayor Pro Tem Emily Francis. “This will provide a much clearer roadmap.”

Like the first two iterations, the new code, passed 6-0 with Mayor Jeni Arndt absent, still creates a simpler development-review process for housing deemed “affordable” or “attainable.” It uses form-based building types and standards instead of regulating dwelling units per acre to regulate density, and eliminates density limits for affordable housing in higher-density zones. It also increases to 60 years how long an affordable-housing unit has to remain deed-restricted.

But gone are provisions in the first try that triggered howls of citizen protest by virtually abolishing  single-family residential zoning in Fort Collins. Nine contentious requirements were stripped from the city’s third version:

  • In the Residential Low-Density zone, the largest zone in Fort Collins, composed mostly of single-unit, detached homes largely built between 1960 and 1997, the new code removes accessory dwelling units as a permitted housing type and decreases the maximum density permitted on a lot.
  • In the Neighborhood Conservation, Low Density / Old Town-A zone, which permits single-unit, detached houses as well as “carriage houses’ on lots larger than 12,000 square feet, the revisions remove duplexes as a permitted housing type, maintain the current lot size for residential units and remove the affordable-housing incentive of additional housing types such as apartments, row houses and cottage courts.
  • In the Neighborhood Conservation, Medium Density zone district, making up neighborhoods that are adjacent to downtown and including a diverse mix of single-unit detached, duplex, and multi-unit residential buildings often integrated on the same block with commercial uses and services within walking distance, the revisions would maintain the current four-unit maximum for multi-unit buildings, maintain the current lot size for residential units and remove the affordable-housing incentive of additional density.
  • For neighborhoods controlled by private covenants or homeowners’ associations, including the more than 200 HOAs registered in Fort Collins, the 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.

Led by former City Council member Ross Cunniff, the Preserve Fort Collins citizens group launched a successful petition drive that 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” — which critics charged would have virtually ended single-family residential zoning — 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.

Council members Kelly Ohlson and Susan Gutowsky were staunch “no” votes on the first two versions, and Gutowsky still voted in opposition on April 16 when the council gave first-reading approval to the third version. However, both — and Cunniff as well, speaking remotely during Tuesday night’s public comment period — were eventually won over.

“I just have to trust that we eliminated the most contentious things,” said Ohlson, repeating the stance he took three weeks ago that “if I waited for everything to be perfect, I’d be a no vote on everything.”

Ohlson hailed the strident community voices that scuttled the city’s first and more-sweeping tries despite support from such powerful lobbies as the Fort Collins Area Chamber of Commerce and Habitat for Humanity.

“We did listen because of two citizen petitions that were very successful,” he said, “and I was impressed with that.”

Gutowsky reiterated what she has said all along — “I don’t believe density equals affordability”  — but acknowledged that she changed her mind about soaring construction costs making affordable housing virtually impossible when she attended two recent ribbon-cuttings in northeast Fort Collins.

Landmark Homes’ 55-acre Northfield development, along the newly built Suniga Drive between College and Lemay avenues, contains 301 condominiums, 139 townhomes and a 3,000-square-foot mixed-use building, along with more than 80 homes developed by nonprofit Mercy Housing Mountain Plains that are deed-restricted for people making an average of 30% to 60% of the area median income.

“What I saw” in Landmark’s Northfield Commons development, Gutowsky said, “was well-built, beautiful housing with amenities that made it comfortable” and with purchase prices quoted by the developer that are “well below what the prices of housing are within the area.” She added that her eyes were opened by the fact that “Landmark could build that housing at that price.” 

She described the deed-restricted Mercy Housing portion as “also beautifully built, smaller but definitely livable.

“I saw that it is possible to build this kind of housing,” Gutowsky said. “If they can do it, I can believe other developers can do it under the careful and watchful eye of the city.”

But will the city have any teeth to enforce it, she asked.

“We don’t have any accountability built into our land-use code,” she said. “We have great hopes that it’ll happen, but no way of measuring whether we’re successful.”

Noting that Fort Collins already has data-driven metrics regarding broadband use, air-quality and water needs, Gutowsky said she hoped to see a report within a year to “see whether we have moved the dial. … “We can do no less than have a report on the affordable housing we’re hoping to build.”

Meaghan Overton, the city’s housing manager, assured Gutowsky that the city does have “a lot of data in multiple formats” and a housing dashboard that’s publicly available to keep track of whether the goals are being met.

City staff has called the new land-use code “foundational” and has hinted that some of the previous ideas might be reworked and reintroduced later.

Phase 2 of the land-use code update will address remaining issues in commercial, industrial, environmental and other areas and will also incorporate code changes that are not directly tied to housing. A conversation on that phase will be conducted at a council work session, currently scheduled for June 11.

After having two of its attempts to rewrite the city’s 27-year-old land-use code overturned by citizen-initiated petitions, the Fort Collins City Council on Tuesday night gave unanimous final approval to a stripped-down but “foundational” version.

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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