Colorado Christian University in Lakewood has sued the city over a zoning ordinance that prohibits the college from owning and renting housing in residential areas off its main campus to students.
The private nondenominational university filed the lawsuit in Jefferson County District Court last week alleging it violates both the federal and state constitutions and asking the court to rule it can’t be enforced.
A spokeswoman for the city said Lakewood was aware of the lawsuit but declined to comment further.
The lawsuit comes in the wake of a 6-5 vote by the Lakewood City Council on April 12 to define the phrase “student living unit” for zoning purposes as “a dwelling unit that is owned or controlled by a college or university and inhabited by students enrolled in that college or university who are related or unrelated.” The new definition went into effect May 27.
At that April meeting, one council member voting in favor said he was trying to “protect the integrity of nearby neighborhoods,” while others voting against said they didn’t think the measure was legal. And they indicated this has long been an area of concern.
“This issue has been out there for 20 years,” Councilwoman Ramey Johnson said at the meeting.
Colorado Christian’s main campus is at 8787 W. Alameda Ave. According to its lawsuit, the university also owns a half dozen small homes in the 100 block of South Cody Court, just east of campus.
The university has been renting, or intends to rent, those homes to students, according to the lawsuit. But the city mailed Colorado Christian a cease-and-desist letter in late May, saying the university needed to stop “any use that violates Lakewood’s municipal code, specifically any use that would fall under the category ‘student living unit.’”
In its lawsuit, Colorado Christian notes that other nearby homes are rented to college students, but those aren’t considered “student living units” because the university does not own them.
The university argues the ordinance “does not provide like treatment to all similarly situated landlords, as Plaintiff is the only landlord in the Zone District subject to enforcement.” It says the measure “is not reasonable, but is arbitrary, targeted at CCU.”
Colorado Christian argues the ordinance violates the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and substantive due process protection outlined in Article II, Section 25, of the Colorado Constitution.
According to a memo prepared by Lakewood city staff, in 2003, changes were made to the city’s zoning ordinance that limited the number of unrelated people that could live at a single residence, and that prohibited college and university uses in residential zones.
In 2012, according to the documents, a new zoning code was adopted that kept those provisions, but the term “student living unit” was not used or defined. The vote on adding a definition was made after requests by those who leave near Colorado Christian.
At the April meeting, Councilman Charley Able said that the definition would “protect the integrity of nearby neighborhoods,” and that “if the terms don’t suit CCU, CCU can ask the city for rezoning.”
“Most cities that have colleges and universities also have restraints on student housing and frankly there are not many instances that I can find where colleges and universities buy off-campus properties to house their students in,” Able said. “I think it’s merely cleaning up an inadvertent deletion from the code that was made a few years ago.”
Mayor Adam Paul, meanwhile, was one the five who unsuccessfully voted against the measure, saying it was “discriminatory.”
“A duplex is a duplex and regulating ownership, as to whether I could own a duplex and rent it to students and another person can’t, just does not sit well with me as much as I understand the neighborhood’s concerns,” Paul said at the meeting.
Colorado Christian is being represented by attorney Jonathan Slie of Thomas N. Scheffel & Associates. The university, founded in 1914, had 8,579 students as of September 2020, about 17 percent of whom were considered “traditional undergraduates.”