Days after Denver City Council approved a massive overhaul to the group-living aspects of the Denver Zoning Code, opponents of the ordinance started pushing a repeal referendum for the November 2021 ballot.
"It’s called democracy, something that this counterculture that we're living in doesn't particularly like anymore," says George Mayl, one of five individuals whose name is included on paperwork submitted to the Denver Clerk and Recorder on February 26 to establish a signature-gathering committee for the repeal effort.
After three years of work led by Community Planning and Development, on February 8 Denver City Council voted for the group-living zoning amendment, which raises the number of unrelated adults who may live together in the same household from two to five and makes it easier for service providers to set up residential-care facilities throughout the city, including halfway houses, homeless shelters and sober-living homes.
While the proposal had significant support from Denver residents and affordable-living advocates and scored an 11-2 vote from council, it also faced significant — and vocal — opposition.
Opponents, who coalesced into an advocacy group called Safe and Sound Denver last summer, argued that the proposed ordinance would decrease public safety, chip away at the neighborhood character of certain parts of Denver, and lead to overcrowding. Safe and Sound Denver also claimed that Community Planning and Development's work was a results-oriented process that had pre-determined outcomes.
Mayl is the former president of Inter-Neighborhood Cooperation Denver, an organization founded to represent the interests of the city's registered neighborhood organizations. But in signing on to the campaign against the new ordinance, he says, he's operating as an individual. (The four other people who signed on to be petitioner committee members — Samuel Hargraves, Jennifer Qualteri, Richard Saiz and Thricosia Burdine — did not return calls from Westword.)
"I'm sure that many registered neighborhood organizations told their respective council representatives that they didn’t particularly like the way this was going about. The councilmembers voted anyway, the majority against the will of constituents," says Mayl. (Kevin Flynn and Amanda Sawyer were the only members to vote against the measure.)
While Mayl says he disagrees with the number of unrelated adults who will now be able to live together as well as where halfway house and homeless shelters might be able to open, he notes that he's simply gathering signatures and isn't leading the repeal efforts, pointing to Florence Sebern as the person heading the campaign.
Sebern, one of the people who founded Safe and Sound Denver in 2020, declines to comment on the repeal.
In January, Sebern scored a legal victory in Denver District Court when a judge ruled largely in her favor regarding a lawsuit she'd filed to gain access to documents related to the group-living proposal's origins that the City of Denver had refused to turn over. The documents showed that from the start of the planning process, those involved planned to address issues like the lack of halfway-house options in Denver and the number of unrelated adults who could live together. However, CPD officials say they were open from the start that they planned to address these parts of the zoning code.
"This was a three-year, extensively researched and discussed public process that had the support of close to fifty community organizations, eleven city council members, and involved more than 1,000 residents whose input helped shape the final package of amendments," says Laura Schwartz, spokesperson for Community Planning and Development. "Before these changes were made, Denver had among the most restrictive rules in the U.S. on who can legally share a home together. Because of these amendments, the Denver Zoning Code is now in line with most major cities around the U.S. and in Colorado."
Cole Chandler, director of Colorado Village Collaborative, a nonprofit that runs two tiny home villages and a safe-camping site for people experiencing homelessness in Denver, hopes that a possible repeal of the zoning amendment doesn't land on the November ballot.
"That’s one of the most important pieces of legislation that Denver City Council has passed in the last five years in terms of its ability to create and preserve naturally affordable housing in our city," Chandler says. "Our city council declared that cities are places for people of all income levels, of all races and ethnicities to be able to thrive, regardless of the way they choose to live together or are forced to live together by necessity.
"It’s sad to see the opponents of that measure pushing this forward," he continues, "but they can certainly expect that the groundswell of community support that exists for this would show up to ensure that the progress we’ve made continues to move forward."
The petitioners have until the second week of May to gather and submit 9,184 valid signatures, according to Alton Dillard, spokesperson for the Denver Elections Division. If the signatures pass muster, in November Denver residents will be able to vote on whether to repeal the new zoning amendment.
If the repeal were to pass, Denver City Council could not re-enact the ordinance for at least one year, and then it would require approval by two-thirds of the members.
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