Denver City Council Starts Chipping Away at Remnants of Old Zoning Code

Green Valley Ranch is a relatively recent planned master community.
Green Valley Ranch is a relatively recent planned master community. oakwoodhomesco.com
On October 12, Denver City Council voted unanimously to give the zoning administrator authority to allow for  temporary emergency homeless shelters, safe camping sites, and the expansion of bar and restaurant patios in areas of Denver currently zoned under the old zoning code.

"It creates equity across the board in Denver. That’s of the utmost importance to me," Councilwoman Amanda Sandoval, who introduced the measure, said at the meeting before the vote.

The changes affecting areas of the city still zoned under the old code, known as former Chapter 59 zoning, will last for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic.

When city council approved a comprehensive new zoning code for Denver in 2010, it included an amendment noting that the update would not apply to areas still zoned under the old code unless the owners of that land were okay with a full rezoning under the new code. This exemption applied primarily to planned communities and other developments that had already gone for zoning exemptions, mainly master-planned developments and plots of land with hyper-specific zoning plans.

The city's zoning administrator asked Sandoval if she would introduce the bill, since Sandoval employs a planner in her council office. "I wasn’t actually aware that in former Chapter 59 that you couldn’t do an outdoor patio-seating permit or some of the safe outdoor sites, so when that was brought to my attention and they were talking about needing a bridge amendment, it made sense to me," says Sandoval, adding that "it creates equity."

The council move is an especially big win for proponents of safe camping sites, who have run into the former Chapter 59 zoning obstacle at dozens of sites that otherwise might be suitable for sanctioned encampments.

While this fix only applies to restaurants, safe camping sites and shelters, it's representative of a larger push by elected officials and city employees to start taking a serious look at the hurdles presented by remnants of that old zoning code.

Although it's been ten years since the City of Denver adopted its new zoning code, over 20 percent of the city remains zoned under the old one. That's because city planners determined that they didn't have matching analogs in the 2010 code.

"The hope in 2010 was that city council would work to find funding for a programmatic approach to the rezoning of the land retained under the old zoning code," says a retired zoning administrator who was closely involved with the rewrite and requested anonymity because of the highly charged nature of zoning debates.

However, the former Chapter 59 zoning pockets didn't emerge as a major issue until opponents of the current group-living zoning code overhaul project pointed out that the fifth of the city still under the old zoning code wouldn't be subject to the changes, including increasing the number of unrelated adults who can live in the same home and allowing for halfway houses in more parts of the city. After that, the disjointed zoning of the city began to create equity concerns for councilmembers such as Stacie Gilmore, who recognized that in her district, the master-plan development of Green Valley Ranch wouldn't be affected by these changes, while much of Montbello would be.

Community Planning and Development, which hopes to have the group-living zoning code proposal passed by council in early 2021, agrees with the equity concerns.

"We are looking both at short-term remedies that could apply the definition of what constitutes a 'household' from the Denver Zoning Code to areas still zoned under the old code as well as at a larger-scale effort to comprehensively rezone areas with old code zoning," explains Laura Schwartz, a spokesperson for CPD, who notes that council will discuss these issues at a committee meeting in mid-November.

Councilwoman Sandoval believes that CPD should "absolutely" prioritize bringing the rest of the city under the new zoning code. "I think it’s really important," she says, adding that she wonders why CPD didn't take this on sooner.

"We definitely need to address this," agrees Councilwoman Kendra Black, whose district in southeast Denver includes significant portions still zoned under the old code. "It is very complicated — which is why it wasn’t done ten years ago. I am in support of the effort, but it will take a long time!"

But Councilman Kevin Flynn, whose district also includes some old zoning, isn't ready to push for putting all of the city under the new code "without first having a review of all of the conflicts that this entails," he says.

"Some perhaps should be changed — my neighborhood has some Planned Building Group covenants that prevent practical solutions to specific problems that are easily solved in Denver Zoning Code areas of the city through administrative decisions by the zoning office, such as fence heights," he notes. "But these areas have relied on these custom entitlements, waivers and restrictions, and they run with the land as part of the individual deeds." 
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Conor McCormick-Cavanagh is a staff writer at Westword, where he covers a range of beats, including local politics, immigration and homelessness. He previously worked as a journalist in Tunisia and loves to talk New York sports.