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APA Utah News & Events


May 29, 2023 by Nicole Mason

May 26, 2023 by Wilf sommerkorn

I have written before, that Atlantic writer Jerusalem Demsas has become perhaps my favorite observer of the topic of housing affordability and zoning reform, and she did it again with a great, insightful piece in the upcoming summer Atlantic magazine, writing about Colorado’s recent experience.
Demsas chronicles the optimistic start of a zoning reform-style bill in this year’s Colorado state legislative session. Its ultimate demise is ostensibly due to opposition by the local governments that would have been affected. I’ve written about that extensively, too, noting that state-local cooperation generally seems to produce better results, but Demsas calls out the real difficulty of the issue:
Local government is about what you can do for me, right now. Because local officials have a narrow jurisdiction, engaged voters have a direct line to them and significant influence on their decisions. This tight relationship is good for handling issues like broken streetlights and potholes but doesn’t lend itself to managing society-wide problems, such as a housing crisis. This is why the political logic of building a lot more housing rarely carries the day at the local level.
It’s great to say and strive for that cooperative effort, but will those local jurisdictions produce results?  Indeed, will they be able to, given the nature of their politics?

Gov.  Polis’s original proposal was greeted by fierce opposition from local governments, though not because of objections to open space, affordability, or new parking rules. The fight was over where the power to make land-use decisions should lie.

Kevin Bommer, of the Colorado Municipal League, offered a pithy synthesis of local governments’ position: “Respectfully, get off our lawn,” he told me.

I asked Bommer about his policy disagreements with the governor, but he kept stressing the issue of local control. “My members statewide don’t necessarily disagree with a lot of [Polis’s] goals, but to start with saying that the state gets to set a model code and the state gets to regulate and the state will be in charge of land use going forward is a nonstarter,” he said.

It’s pretty much the same refrain we hear in Utah whenever state proposed regulatory measures are proposed. But the word here is that there has been a much better collaboration on those efforts. Has it been successful?  Take a look at the numbers for residential building permits issued in Utah the last couple of years.  We’re hitting record numbers.

We get a mention in Demsas’ piece, ostensibly over our legislative measures on moderate income housing plans and implementation, transit station area plans, accessory dwelling units, and now our residential subdivision process standard, among others:

Washington, Oregon, California, Utah, Montana, and Massachusetts have, to varying degrees, pulled authority for land-use decisions up to the state level.

But the difficulty of the fractured nature of local jurisdiction for regional issues is again demonstrated as Demsas recounts a local anecdote, including the fact that much of what drives local politics is quite unrepresentative of the community:

Just a small fraction of people even engage in local housing fights. Many of those who do are extreme voices or otherwise unrepresentative of the broader community. Look at Fort Collins, Colorado. After more than five years of community engagement, and many months of work by city planners, a 5–2 majority on the city council voted to liberalize land-use policies to allow more housing. But a small group of opponents pressured the council to reverse itself, gathering 6,500 petition signatures—this in a city of more than 160,000. And they won. The council voted again, this time 7–0 to repeal the change.

It’s an excellent piece, which raises cogent issues. Give it a read and then consider how best to tackle this serious problem.

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