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APA Utah News & Events

We Are Not Alone!

March 12, 2023 by Nicole Mason

March 7, 2023

By Wilf Sommerkorn

visit Wilf’s blog at

With the intense concentration on our own legislative maneuvering on land use issues, I thought it might be helpful to see how this compares to what is happening in other states.  It’s an understatement to say that land use issues are being considered and debated in other states – just about every state around the country seems to have something happening.  Much of this flurry of activity is rooted in the nationwide discussion of late about zoning reform, which usually seems to mean the watering down or elimination of exclusive single-family zoning.  In addition to National APA and the National League of Cities partnering on this issue, others are also addressing it, like the National Association of Counties, the National Association of Home Builders, the National Association of RealtorsEnterprise Community Partners, and many others.  National APA, on its Knowledge Center blog, posted this in January about what was expected on zoning reform in a number of states – interestingly, they did not include Utah.

Here’s a sampling of what’s going on in just a couple of the states around us (I’m not including California – that is a story all its own on what’s going on there and how things are being addressed):

From Colorado:

… (legislators) will bring bills that could reshape housing policy across the state by dangling incentives to encourage transit-oriented development, making it easier to build accessory dwelling units and removing other barriers  imposed by local governments, such as minimum parking requirements.

“This is far beyond just a local problem,” Gov. Jared Polis said in his State of the State address last month in which he used the word “housing” more than three dozen times. “We have to break down government barriers, expand private property rights and reduce regulations to actually construct more housing to provide housing options at a lower cost so that all Coloradans can thrive.”

Colorado has historically been a state where such land use and zoning decisions are determined at the local level, so city and county officials are nervous about what may be coming from the legislature.

“This is going to be major,” said Claire Levy, a Boulder County Commissioner. “It’s a major shift in policy for the state of Colorado.”

Wheat Ridge Mayor Bud Starker said he agrees with the governor’s goal of addressing housing needs but is hoping there’s room for discussion around the methods.  “I don’t think it’s necessary for the state to start dictating land use regulations in order to achieve a more affordable Colorado.”

From Arizona:

The Arizona Senate Commerce Committee passed an amended bill earlier this month that would supersede some municipal authority over zoning in order to address the statewide housing shortage. But, it faces opposition from city and local leaders across the state.

Senate Bill 1117, sponsored by Sen. Steve Kaiser, R-Phoenix, … stipulates that lots smaller than 4,000 square feet be made available for the development of multifamily projects such as duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes, according to Kaiser.

The bill also requires an expedited approval process for new developments and designates commercial and mixed-use zoning to accommodate high-density housing.

City councils and mayors, among other critics, say that if the bill passes, voter-approved general plans could be ignored by developers. “If this passes, it would really render the general plan moot,” said Tempe Mayor Corey Woods. “What voters believed to be the guiding document for development heights and density would no longer hold true.”

Gilbert Mayor Brigette Peterson wrote in a recent twitter message:

Last week, I testified at the Arizona Senate Commerce Committee in respectful opposition to SB1117. This bill would remove the public from the zoning/planning process & grant developers complete authority of development decisions in our town.

Many state legislatures seem to be taking a much more “top-down” approach to changing land use processes and rules in local communities.  That’s rather different from what has been happening here in Utah, where we have the Land Use Task Force, the Commission on Housing Affordability, the Uniform Economic Opportunity Commission, and the Utah League of Cities and Towns working very proactively with all sides in the development process to address the challenges to growth and housing affordability.

I want to spend a few minutes on what is going on in Montana with their legislative effort on land use processes.  While a variety of bills have been introduced in the Montana legislature on land use issues (much as we have here each year), the major effort that will likely supersede them all is Senate Bill 382.

Senate Bill 382 would require additional planning by local governments, rework how and when residents can participate in planning decisions and, supporters say, make it easier to build the housing necessary to accommodate rapid population growth.

Justification for SB382 to override all those other ad-hoc land use bills is given in the way the bill came together.

The bill’s language … has been negotiated over a period of years through a workgroup that brought together city and county governments, land use planners, surveyors, the Montana Building Industry Association and the Montana Association of Realtors.

Sounds a lot like our Land Use Task Force.  Notably, the bill was written by Kelly Lynch, executive director of the Montana League of Cities and Towns, who has a Masters Degree in Urban Planning and has worked in Community Development in the past.  In many ways, provisions in the bill sound like what has happened here in Utah.

The 48-page SB 382 would require city and county governments in the state’s most-populous counties to expand their proactive planning efforts, producing forward-looking land use plans that inventory existing housing, analyze projected population growth and determine specifically where they’ll allow the construction of enough homes to house future residents.

Those local governments would be required to take specific steps to encourage more housing construction, selecting at least five development-boosting strategies from a menu of 15 options. Those options, many of which parallel proposals included in the ad hoc zoning reform bills, include steps like reducing parking requirements, reducing minimum lot sizes and zoning for higher density near universities and public transit stations.

But in another way, the bill goes beyond where we have ventured so far in our state – in the separation of the processes for legislative and administrative land use actions.  The Montana bill does this:

The bill would also make an explicit effort to shift public participation in land use planning earlier in the process, inviting more public input as growth plans are being written and limiting public comment once specific projects are proposed.

While not described as such by the bill’s supporters, that change would in effect reduce the opportunity residents have to rally not-in-my-backyard-style opposition to subdivisions or buildings when a developer’s proposal meshes with already adopted zoning.

Currently, many proposed developments are subject to votes by elected city and county officials in public meetings regardless of whether they conform with adopted land use goals, a dynamic Lynch said injects unnecessary uncertainty into the development process. Under the process laid out in SB 382, in contrast, proposed projects would generally be approved administratively by a city or county planning director if they’re in “substantial compliance” with adopted regulations and don’t raise unanticipated issues.

SB382 just passed a few days ago in the Montana Senate by a 44-6 vote. If Montana can do this, certainly we can at least take a closer look as well.

A lot of credit for what took place in this year’s Utah legislative session, at least on the major land use bills that had been agreed to by the Land Use Task Force, was holding the integrity of the process intact.  Efforts were made to amend other provisions into those bills late in the session, sometimes at the behest of powerful interests.  But by and large, the LUTF participants, both from local government and from the development community, held firm that this not be allowed.  The benefit is the restoring of faith in the LUTF process, which many of you know has not been that well-regarded in the last couple of years.  So kudos to the behind-the-scenes negotiators for their efforts.

Now of course, no one really seems to be able to control what other bills on land use get introduced, and there are some real humdingers that come forward.  But by and large, most of those bills fail when the land use actors make the issues known.  Not always, however, as evidenced by a few of the bills that made it through this year (and pretty much do every year).

But apparently this happens in other states as well.  I guess it just seems to be the nature of the legislative political process.  So, there’s plenty we can learn from other states, and things they can learn from us (and apparently are, as League ED Cameron Diehl told me he has been on the phone with a variety of other states’ League Directors to explain what is being done here).

It will be most interesting to see what the next year brings.

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