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Fort Collins council repeals revised land-use codes

FORT COLLINS — Its hand forced by a successful citizen-led petition drive, the Fort Collins City Council late Tuesday night voted unanimously to repeal the sweeping changes to the city’s land-use code it had passed in November in an effort to lure more affordable-housing options, and to reinstate the previous code, which had been crafted in 1997.

After hearing nearly four hours of public comments from more than 100 residents, council members on both sides of the issue agreed that the intent of the changes — to provide more diversity, inclusion and affordability in the city’s housing options — had been a worthy one, but that they needed to take the time to go back and rework the plan, doing more to involve Fort Collins citizens in the process.

“Nobody had any bad motives,” said council member Kelly Ohlson, “but we didn’t get a lot of it right. We didn’t get the process right.”

Ohlson had been one of two members who voted against the measure on Nov. 1 when the council, 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, gave second-reading approval to a sweeping, 474-page measure that would change the name of the “land-use code” to “land-development code.”

The ordinance would have, among other things, eliminated zones just for single-family homes in low-density neighborhoods, thus allowing secondary structures such as carriage houses, tiny homes or other “additional dwelling units” on residential lots, and would have substantially cut back on the public-hearing process for new developments.

The revamped code had the support of Habitat for Humanity and many of the other groups in the city that advocate for affordable housing, as well as the Fort Collins Area Chamber of Commerce and an advocacy organization called FoCo Forward

However, opponents alleged that the impacts of the increased density would adversely affect Fort Collins’ character without guarantees that housing affordability would follow. A group calling itself Preserve Fort Collins, spearheaded by former City Council member Ross Cunniff, launched what would become a successful petition drive to force the council to either repeal the new code or refer the issue to Fort Collins voters, either in a special municipal election or as part of a general election ballot this fall.

Most of those who came to the microphone in council chambers on Tuesday night — a mix of students, developers, landlords, renters and longtime residents — supported the new code, praised the city staff members who had crafted it, and urged the council to make few changes to the new plan when it resubmitted it, arguing that the revamped codes were “too complex to be put to voters.”

They argued that “diversity is necessary for housing choice” and that the revamped code “does not create affordability, it just facilitates creation of affordable housing.” One supporter of the new codes alleged that the old zoning that included areas for single-family residential areas constituted “institutional segregation.”

In an email to BizWest late Tuesday, Ann Hutchison, president and CEO of the Fort Collins Chamber, wrote that, “as a strong advocate for housing choice and affordability, the Chamber is incredibly encouraged by the overwhelming support for the land-development code expressed by the community tonight. More refreshing was the diversity of citizens who shared how current conditions affected them personally. Young residents, in particular, offer reason to be very excited for the future of our community.”

Opponents, however, charged that “density does not create affordability,” that developers would have no incentive to build affordable housing, and that the city would be left “overcrowded and expensive.” If prices do fall, they said, it would be because of less demand. One said the council should work for “more affordable housing that doesn’t override HOA guidelines or private property rights,” another urged it to “preserve citizen participation in the development review process,” and yet another said the “public engagement process was fatally flawed from the start. The majority of active stakeholders were limited to those with vested financial interests.”

Cunniff urged council members and city staff to limit higher-density housing to “strips along transit corridors, not in the middle of neighborhoods,” and another Preserve Fort Collins board member warned the council that only substantial changes to the codes would be acceptable and that any attempt to make only “cosmetic changes will result in another petition to repeal it.”

One commenter suggested that the city run a pilot program in a small area and gauge the results before enacting any citywide solution.

Mayor Jeni Arndt said she believed the new code would have achieved the desired results, but that “if that’s not the perception of the public, that’s what matters.” Council member Emily Francis added that “I don’t believe we need to start over,” and council member Shirley Peel noted that “staff did the best they could with outreach.”

Peel decried “a lot of ugliness” in the public debate that followed the council’s November approval of the new codes. She said her intelligence and integrity had been questioned for supporting the action, and that “I know council members have been intimidated. I was called a homophobe — I don’t know where that came from in a land-development issue.”

Council member Tricia Canonico said the “best growth comes out of a painful process.” Noting that the new codes’ cutbacks in the public-hearing process for new development were added because “both sides wanted predictability in the decision,” she said “there are ways to follow along with what we’re doing so there’ll be no surprises. You can sign up online” to be updated on the development-review process.”

Ohlson, however, said he saw no evidence that the changes would have significantly impacted the supply of affordable housing, adding that “I think we need to quit pretending this is some kind of silver bullet” and calling the revamped codes “an investor and developer bill of rights.”

The soaring prices of housing was caused by “growth and demand, not city policies, and city policies aren’t going to fix it as they’re currently presented,” he said. “You’re not going to grow your way out of unaffordability.

“The more I read about ADUs, it seems like a backdoor elimination of the You-plus-2 occupancy ordinance,” Ohlson said, asking “Does this in effect eliminate single-family zoning? That annoyed people a lot,” he said. “We never told that to people in any of the outreach we were doing.”

Council member Susan Gutowsky, who also had voted against the new codes in November, added that “I don’t believe we can depend on the altruism of developers. They want to sell at market rate.”

In the end, council members agreed that, in the words of council member Julie Pignataro, “We didn’t get to bring everyone along with us” and that a more process of citizen participation was needed as the city works to refine the initiative.

“I do want to get it right,” Peel said. “I want council members to be very involved in the listening sessions.”

Proponents of the new codes had said they would help the city secure state funding for affordable housing as part of Proposition 123, passed by Colorado voters in November. The measure dedicates 0.1% of state income tax revenue for affordable-housing programs, including aid to develop more housing and assistance for certain renters and home buyers, as long as a city can document 3% annual growth in affordable housing options. Citing the proposition’s “fast-track approval process,” Fort Collins Housing Manager Meaghan Overton said under the current land-use code’s public-hearing process, “it would be challenging to meet that 90-day deadline.”

Reached after the council’s vote, Cunniff told BizWest that the city “could accomplish those things without a 474-page revision to the land use code.” He said the outcome of Tuesday’s meeting was “exactly what we were asking for — a robust public-engagement process. I heard both sides saying they’re willing to engage in dialogue about land use codes that fit Fort Collins.”

The Chamber’s Hutchison also expressed hope that a good solution could be reached.

“We did speak out in support of repealing the code, using it as a starter for an extensive outreach process and then reconsideration of an updated code this fall,” she wrote in the email to BizWest. “We also don’t want to assume what topics drive the conversation. We want the community to be involved and to find the pragmatic solutions that allow us to take action on our housing crisis.”

Source: BizWest