Academics and Research / Magazine Feature

Law course on zoning code to be a study in public good

It’s 721 pages of mind-numbing charts, numbers and technical jargon that is as riveting as a manual for assembling furniture.

But to land-use and sustainability expert James van Hemert, Denver’s proposed new zoning code is an extraordinary real-world teaching device for his class and a chance for DU to promote the public good.

Van Hemert is executive director of the Rocky Mountain Land Use Institute at the Sturm College of Law and an expert on sustainability. So, when the city of Denver on June 1 released the first draft of the revised zoning code that’s been under construction for four years, van Hemert leaped at the opportunity to help students understand law and influence it at the same time.

“Is this a brilliant masterpiece or is this a nightmare?” he asks. “This code has the potential to be a real masterpiece and a real game-changer for the city on a path to sustainability … But I have grave concern.”

Which is why come the middle of August, van Hemert and law students in his Urban Planning Law: Growth and Sustainable Development class will be rolling up their sleeves and diving headfirst into what by then will be the code’s second draft.

“This is such an important document, more so than most people realize,” he says. “I would suggest that looking at this seriously is as important, if not more important, than the sustainability initiative.”

The sustainability initiative is a wide range of sustainable practices to which the University of Denver committed itself, including the pledge to be carbon neutral no later than 2050.

“We can be much more sustainable as a campus if the city of Denver is more sustainable,” van Hemert says. “Zoning has very serious implications for society — everything from social equity to the environment to the economy.”

Zoning isn’t sexy, he allows, but it’s very important because it influences how we live and how we look at the way we live.

An example, van Hemert says, is Accessory Dwelling Units, also known as Granny Flats. Excluding them as a building option for the past 53 years was “a historical aberration that we codified and now considered normal,” he says. In fact, ADUs are an important residential option that should to be available citywide, absent a compelling reason to disallow them in some areas. To exclude ADUs is “weak and backward looking” and ignores “changing demographic and economic realities,” he says.

Other important issues are how the new code will see to the development of areas around transit stations; whether it is wise to “downzone” to single-family-only a huge swath of Denver now zoned R-2, a multifamily category; how density and diversity of housing should be accommodated; and how neighborhoods can be gradually transformed into a walkable, sustainable integration of residence, retail, transit and employment.

Then, there’s the question of how the code will affect land owned by DU both on campus and in surrounding neighborhoods.

Van Hemert suggests DU can play an important leadership role by weighing into the zoning discussion and offering advice.

“The University can promote the public good by being engaged in the dialogue,” he says. “This is a chance for academics as well as students to get engaged and involved.”

Code text and maps can be found online at

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