Who'd have thought a zoning dispute could be so fascinating?

So there's been a battle over zoning going on in the West Highlands/Sloan's Lake neighborhood in northwest Denver. And it's really quite interesting.

The neighborhood sits just a few miles west of downtown Denver. And it's made up of a very interesting hodge-podge of architectural styles. The first homes were built around the turn of the last century. Many more were built in the 1920's and '30's, as Italian immigrants to Colorado discovered the northwest part of town and made it the "Little Italy" of Denver. The western and southern edges of the neighborhood (especially Sloan's Lake) saw most of their development in the 1940's and '50's.

It's an interesting neighborhood. Like all areas, it's gone through stages. In the latter half of the 20th century, the Highlands saw significant decline as Denver-ites headed for the newly build suburbs west and south of town. But in the 1990's, neighborhoods like the Highlands -- with their quirky architecture and central shopping districts, located just minutes from downtown -- were rediscovered. The "main street" district at 32nd and Lowell was revitalized. Homes were purchased and updated. Tops were popped.

And, inevitably, old houses were scraped away to make room for newer, bigger, fancier homes.

What's unique about the West Highlands is that the homes are small, but many of the lots are big. And many of those lots are zoned R2, which means that two residences can be built on a single lot (as in a duplex or a single family home with a mother-in-law apartment). Which has made the Highlands very attractive to developers who can tear down a single home and build a duplex in its place.

And thus the battle. The people who want to "preserve" the character of the neighborhood proposed that many of the properties zoned R2 be changed to R1. They argued that "Blueprint Denver" (a 20 year growth plan adopted by the city in 2002) had designated the Highlands an "area of stability" and that the low population density and character of the neighborhood needed to be protected by uniformly zoning the area R1. Opponents, including developers (of course), the National Association of Realtors and others, countered that tearing down old, dilapidated housing to build new homes was revitalizing the neighborhood,that that R2 zoning had been in place since 1957 and was obviously central to our "forefathers" intent for the area, and that changing the zoning wouldn't impact scraping at all -- it would only mean that the replacement homes would be single family residences instead of duplexes. Most important, they said, was that the zoning change would affect the property values of the homeowners involved, many of whom owned property attractive to developers because of its R2 zoning. From what I can tell, property owners themselves were divided on the issue. My guess would be that there were slightly more in favor than opposed. I'm also guessing that those opposing the proposal were largely the owners of older, more dilapidated structures, while those supporting it were living in the lovelier, statelier homes on blocks filled with the same.

Honestly, I can see this one both ways. On one hand, I was driving down Grove Street in the Highlands (just east of the area of proposed change), looking at the lovely brick 1920's bungalows all lined up, and thinking what a shame it is that, in a generation, this block could be completely replaced by modern structures.

On the other hand, not all of the Highlands is made up of lovely bungalows. A LOT of these homes were clearly not built to be long-lasting structures. They're small houses that were built by poor people to provide them shelter at the moment. And, 100 years later, it shows. Today, many of those homes are owned by people of limited means. For many of these people, selling to a developer at a good price will allow them to pay medical bills, get out of debt and even to retire, where they otherwise could not.

I sold one of those homes just last fall. It built in the late 1800's -- a very small house sitting on at 6200 square foot lot. And this house was not particularly worthy of "preservation." It was little and run down and not built to last. Because of the lot and the R2 zoning, the house sold in one day for over our asking price. And that financial windfall saved my client from a crushing load of debt brought on by her husband's illness.

Sure, there are a lot of homes in the Highlands I'd like to see spared. But first of all, who am I to dictate that to the owners of those homes? And second, zoning changes wouldn't do much to change it. They may slow it a little, because duplexes are attractive to developers who can sell two homes instead of one. But in the long run, it would just alter the demographic of the neighborhood to large single-family homes.

If there's going to be scraping in the Highlands, I'd really rather see duplexes on those lot than those huge, million-dollar plus single family homes that are springing up in Bonnie Brae and other older neighborhoods. The beauty of the Highlands neighborhood has always been it affordability. It's close to downtown, and yet accessible to people of lesser "means." Granted that has changed somewhat since the rediscovery of the area in the 1990's. And granted that a $400,000 duplex isn't exactly "affordable" to many Denver residents. But it's a lot MORE affordable than the seven figure McMansions that would otherwise be going up.

The initial rezoning proposal apparently went down in flames at the City Council meeting on January 16th. But I'm guessing this is just the first round. Of course, both sides have their web sites, if you'd like to learn more. www.rightzoningnorthwestdenver.com is the "pro-zoning change" site, while www.nodownzoning.com is for opponents of the idea.