Zoning clash: Student housing at Colorado Christian University tangles with Lakewoods code

Colorado Christian University’s efforts to house students in properties it owns near campus took a major hit this month in the wake of a court ruling that affirms Lakewood’s right to use its zoning powers to protect “the character and vitality of residential neighborhoods.”

For Lenore Herskovitz, who has lived on South Cody Court for more than a quarter of a century, the ruling was a recognition by the court that student housing — with its often cramped quarters and bumper-to-bumper parking — isn’t always a good fit for a neighborhood.

“The congestion from cars is unbelievable — it’s not a normal residential street anymore,” said the 76-year-old Herskovitz, who became an intervenor in the case. “It’s important to preserve the quality of a neighborhood that a university impacts.”

In the order, issued last week, Jefferson County District Judge Russell Klein concluded that “there is a legitimate government interest in the ability to zone residential neighborhoods to control population density and the locations of schools and universities within those neighborhoods.”

The judge ruled against CCU on all 10 claims the university had listed in a lawsuit it filed last year against Lakewood over the zoning dispute. The university’s suit was a response to an ordinance the city passed in April outlawing “student living units” in any part of the city not zoned as university or college.

CCU owns six properties on South Cody Court, all subject to residential zoning, that have been used to house its students, according to the ruling, and that the school “wishes to continue to do so.” The university was able to obtain a temporary restraining order against the city in June, putting the ordinance in limbo and allowing it to keep using the properties for student housing.

But last week’s ruling vacates that status.

“The judge lifted the preliminary injunction… the city is prepared to enforce the ruling of the court if the city becomes aware of any violations of this ordinance,” Mayor Adam Paul said.

It’s not clear how many students are currently living in the CCU-owned units on South Cody Court and the university did not provide a number when asked. CCU Executive Vice President Daniel Cohrs issued a statement via email about the ruling overall.

“CCU is reviewing the decision and considering its options,” he wrote.

Colorado Christian University, which was founded more than a century ago, enrolls more than 9,000 students. It describes itself as “the only evangelical Christian institution of higher learning in the Rocky Mountain region” on its website.

Disputes over zoning have driven many a land-use fight in Colorado, most recently last summer in Denver when a resident on South Franklin Street sued to overturn the Board of Adjustment for Zoning’s decision allowing his neighbor to build a home that’s 1-foot 4-inches taller than what city zoning allows.

Just two months earlier, residents of Denver’s Cheesman Park cried foul over a proposal to change zoning in the Golden Triangle neighborhood to allow taller buildings — and potentially block views of the mountains to the west.

Kevin Bommer, executive director of the Colorado Municipal League, said he’s happy any time a city’s zoning powers are upheld, but he said there’s no way to tell at this point whether the Lakewood ruling might have a larger bearing on zoning disputes in the state.

Amid the claims dismissed by the judge last week was an allegation by CCU that Lakewood was targeting the school in an “arbitrary and irrational” way because individual landlords are permitted to rent their units to students in the same residentially zoned area of the city.

But the court said, “there is a difference between a residential unit owned by a college or university and a unit owned by an individual.”

“While CCU plans to rent their units solely to students of their university, individuals (non-university owners) renting their units in the same neighborhood are just as likely to rent to students as they are to other individuals who are not associated with the university in any way and are not part of the university culture or community,” Klein wrote.

Charley Able, a Lakewood councilman who represents the neighborhood where Herskovitz lives, said the city is not singling out the university.

“We’re simply defending the integrity of our zoning ordinance,” he said. “If CCU wanted to put kids in these duplexes, they could have applied for a rezoning — that’s the correct way to do it.”

Herskovitz said she sees CCU’s intense fight over zoning as a single-minded attempt by the university to expand its campus to the east, even if it means uprooting neighbors who have lived there for years.

“I’m not going to let them push people out and destroy the neighborhood,” she said.

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