If I were the Zoning Czar

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An edited version of this column was published in Urban Tulsa Weekly on April 19, 2006. Posted to BatesLine on March 10, 2010. The archived column is no longer available on the UTW website.

Zoning Czar
By Michael D. Bates

Toward the end of his late campaign for re-election as Mayor of Tulsa, Bill LaFortune was looking for a bold, concrete way to demonstrate that his pledge to change direction in a second term as mayor was in earnest.

One possibility was to withdraw two pending reappointments of longtime members of the Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission (TMAPC). The idea was that, in their stead, LaFortune would submit nominees who would bring new perspectives to the TMAPC, which is dominated by members who are connected in some way to the development industry. Mine was one of three names that were discussed to fill one of these unpaid positions.

When the monopoly daily newspaper got wind of it, their editorial writers went ballistic. In a March 28 editorial, they wrote, "If [LaFortune] does place Bates on the planning commission, then the city might as well erect billboards at the edges of the city instructing developers to just keep on moving to the suburbs.

Developers already were leery of trying to develop in Tulsa because of the anti-development attitude that has taken root here in recent years -- including in some officials' offices."

It's funny: The last three times I've appeared before the Board of Adjustment (BOA), the TMAPC, or the City Council on a land use matter, it was in support of a development.

For example, last fall I spoke to the City Council in support of the Eastbrook townhouse/office development, going in on 35th Place east of Peoria. The development was opposed by a number of Brookside homeowners. I argued that the Council should strictly apply the Brookside Infill Plan, which had been developed jointly over several years by homeowners, business owners, and the City, and had been incorporated into the Comprehensive Plan. If the plan were set aside in this one case, it would leave both developers and homeowners uncertain about whether it would be honored in the future.

Even if I were named to the TMAPC, I'd only be one vote among eleven, so even assuming I were anti-development, as the World claims, my lone voice shouldn't be enough to deter builders and investors.

But even if I were named Zoning Czar of Tulsa and could redesign Tulsa's land-use planning and regulation policy single-handedly, developers would in time see me as a benevolent zoning despot. The system I'd design would Make Life Betterâ„¢ for homeowners, developers, real estate investors, building managers, tenants - in short, for everyone who lives or does business in Tulsa, because it would decrease risk and uncertainty while improving quality of life.

What would my ideal land-use system look like?

1. The aim of an ideal system would be to protect the investments of all property owners. That means homeowners as well as investors and developers.

2. My ideal system would be predictable. Before you invest in a piece of property you should be able to know with a high degree of certainty what you can and cannot do with your property and what your neighbors can and cannot do with theirs. If permission is dependent on the whim of city officials or on hiring a sufficiently expensive zoning attorney, the system isn't working as it should.

3. My ideal system would regulate what matters and leave the rest alone. Too often, our zoning code "protects" us against situations that really aren't problems, getting in the way of creative ideas that would enhance a neighborhood, while blithely permitting situations that are harmful to the neighborhood and the city as a whole. A good system allows as much freedom as possible, while not losing sight of the fact that what I do with my property affects the value of my neighbor's property.

4. My ideal system would accommodate a variety of neighborhood and development types in order to meet the variety of needs and interests in a city as big as Tulsa. There needs to be a place in Tulsa for an urban, densely developed downtown, as well as for big-box retail. There needs to be a place for both mixed-use, walkable neighborhoods where car-free living is possible, and for auto-oriented development with big-box stores and residential-only neighborhoods.

5. My ideal system would be clear and straightforward. The fewer and simpler the rules the better. Extra points for expressing those rules visually, to make it apparent to developers and homeowners alike what is allowed and what is not.

The present use-based zoning system fails all those criteria. Our current system is based on the assumption that what goes on inside a building has more of an impact on the neighbors than what's true about the outside of the building -- how big the building is, where it sits on the lot, how big the parking lot is.

Our current system follows the post-World-War-II assumption that homes and shops and offices have to be segregated from each other, despite centuries of experience that in the right sizes and proportions they can work together to make a great neighborhood.

Our current system ignores our thirty-year-old Comprehensive Plan as often as it honors it. More often than not, the Comprehensive Plan is amended after a parcel has been rezoned in a way that is contrary to the plan. It is not a reliable guide to homeowners or developers.

Our current system is one-size-fits-all. The same rules apply to Cherry Street and to 71st and Mingo. There's no recognition that development that would fit an auto-oriented strip of new development would not be appropriate as infill in a pedestrian-oriented traditional neighborhood. Under our current code, commercial is commercial - a Wal-Mart Supercenter is no different than an independent coffee house.

To make the current system work, exception after exception and patch upon patch have been added to the zoning code. In choosing to grant or deny a development, much weight is given to "neighborhood compatibility," but what that phrase means is left to the whim of the TMAPC and the City Council. Infill plans like Brookside's are the first attempt to define what neighborhood compatibility means, but for now those plans are not binding, only advisory.

The first steps have been made toward a new and improved system. The previous mayor and council approved work on a new Comprehensive Plan. Mayor Taylor called on her campaign website for the development of a form-based land-use code, which puts the emphasis on the size, shape, and position of buildings, rather than on what happens inside.

Before the election, Mayor LaFortune did withdraw the reappointments of Mary Hill and Brandon Jackson but didn't name any replacements. Mayor Taylor has the chance to name two new planning commissioners who will be fair in their application of the existing system, but who also have the vision and wisdom to help the city through the transition to a new and better system.

The best choices would bring a homeowner's perspective to the table - developers and associated industries are already well-represented on the TMAPC - but would have significant experience and knowledge about zoning and planning. We need new planning commissioners who are aware of Tulsa's zoning practices, but are also students of best practices elsewhere.

The Tulsa World likes to fearmonger about NIMBYs, but the so-called neighborhood naysayers that I know want nothing more than a fair system consistently applied. The World seems to want a system where the most expensive development attorney always wins.

I don't expect I'll ever be named to the TMAPC, much less be named the Pope of Planning, but if it were to happen, the City of Tulsa should erect billboards at the city limits saying, "Tulsa offers a fair, transparent, and up-to-date land-use system that maximizes freedom while protecting the investments of all property owners and our city's quality of life. Tulsa welcomes developers who will work with us to build a better Tulsa."

Of course, signs that wordy would probably violate some ordinance or another.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on April 19, 2006 8:22 AM.

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