Scary bypass

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An edited version of this piece was published on April 26, 2006, in Urban Tulsa Weekly. The archived version is no longer online. Posted on the web on August 18, 2010.

It appears that Tulsa's development lobby, discouraged by the results of the Tulsa City Council elections, has decided to take its fight to the next level. Three Tulsa legislators have sponsored a bill that would interfere with local control of Board of Adjustment (BoA) appeals.

The bill, HB 2559, would require all appeals of Board of Adjustment decisions, whether variances or special exceptions, to go to District Court, with the attendant expenses of attorneys and court costs. The BoA can grant a variance to zoning ordinances if a hardship exists. The BoA can grant a special exception to allow certain uses that aren't allowed by right by the zoning of a piece of property.

In the past, Councilor Roscoe Turner and then-Councilor Jim Mautino have argued that certain BoA decisions should be first appealed to the City Council. While the BoA acts as a quasi-judicial body in many cases, in special exception cases it has the discretion to consider subjective matters like neighborhood compatibility. A special exception can have the impact of a zoning change, and neighborhood advocates argue that the City Council should have the opportunity to review such decisions before the courts are involved.

Under current law, Tulsa's City Council could modify our ordinances to tailor the BoA appeals process to balance the concerns of developers and neighboring property owners. HB 2559, sponsored by State Reps. Ron Peters and Jeannie McDaniel and Sen. Brian Crain, would take away this local discretion over the process and would dictate a one-size-fits-all solution for the entire state.

HB 2559 passed the House on March 8 and passed the Senate on April 19. Because the House "struck the title," the bill must go back to the House for one more vote before it can go to the Governor's desk. All of Tulsa's state representatives and all but two of our state senators supported the measure. (Republican Senators Randy Brogdon and Scott Pruitt voted against.)

An amendment to the bill that would have interfered with local control over historic preservation (HP) overlay zoning was also considered by the State Senate on April 19, but it failed by a 21-24 vote. Of Tulsa's senators, only Judy Eason-McEntyre voted yes.

Five historic Tulsa neighborhoods (and the park around the Council Oak) have special protection under Tulsa's zoning code. Exterior modifications and new construction within an HP zoning district need a certificate of appropriateness from the Tulsa Preservation Commission (TPC) before proceeding, to ensure that the historic character of the neighborhood is maintained. Demolition permits can be delayed for up to 60 days.

HP protection serves the same value-protecting purpose that deed restrictions serve in newer subdivisions. If you buy a home in an HP neighborhood, you can invest in maintaining your home to historic standards with the assurance that your neighbors are subject to the same rules.

But the protection is undermined if someone can easily buy a property in an HP-zoned neighborhood and have it removed from the district. The failed amendment to HB 2559 would have cut the TPC and the Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission (TMAPC) completely out of the process of removing lots from an HP district.

In contrast, the process of creating an HP district or expanding its boundaries requires a great deal of time, historical research, and public input. As a rule of thumb, HP districts need the support of 80% of property owners in the district to move forward through three separate levels of review. Removing a property from the district ought to require a similar high standard of review.

Tulsa's development lobby is used to getting its way 100%. Rather than sitting down with other Tulsans to develop a land-use system that will serve the needs of everyone, they have tried and failed to recall two councilors from office, tried and failed to dismember three City Council districts and replace them with citywide supercouncilor seats, and tried and failed to pack the Council with people they can control. In a move akin to plugging your ears with your fingers and singing "The Star-Spangled Banner," they excluded then-Councilor Chris Medlock from their mayoral candidate forum.

I was hopeful when I learned of the departure earlier this year of Josh Fowler from his post as the Home Builders Association of Greater Tulsa's executive director. I was hopeful that the development lobby had finally recognized that the pit bull tactics he epitomized were no longer working. I was hopeful that the developers were ready to take a more conciliatory approach to public policy. This legislative end-around shows that my hopes weren't well-founded.

Frustrated by the fact that ordinary Tulsans are paying attention to City Hall, Tulsa's development lobby is now trying to dictate local land-use policy from Oklahoma City. Whatever the merits of BoA appeals or of moving parcels in and out of HP districts, those are local matters that should be settled locally.

We need to let our state legislators know that HB 2559 is unacceptable. Homeowners and other property owners should object to local decisions being made a hundred miles away, where it's harder to keep an eye on things. Our City Council and municipal officials across the state ought to object loudly to this infringement on their prerogatives.

In his 2000 campaign book, A Charge to Keep, George W. Bush wrote that he is a conservative because he believes that government closest to the people governs best. I expect to see my fellow Republicans at the State Capitol uphold this fundamental Republican principle, and I expect them to defeat HB 2559 when it comes back to the State House of Representatives for a final vote.

In other City Hall news:

Last Friday the latest round of bids on subcontracts for the construction of the BOk Center were opened.

This was after a two-week delay to give bidders "more preparation time," according a report to the Tulsa World. Despite reassurances that all was well, there was good reason to assume that the delay was because of concerns that bids were coming in way over budget.

As it turned out, the lowest bids on each item exceeded budget by $32 million, about a 50% overage. The total of all five bid packages, plus the cost of land acquisition, plus the amount paid for architectural, project management, and other professional services comes to just shy of $150 million. The remaining bid packages are budgeted at around $30 million, which would bring the total for the arena alone to $180 million.

Remember that the Vision 2025 package allocated $183 million of that sales tax to pay for both the construction of an arena and improvements to the Convention Center, including the conversion of the existing arena into ballroom space. It looks like we won't have anything left to fix the facility that, we have been told again and again, is crucial to bringing outside dollars into the local economy.

When Councilor Chris Medlock raised concerns last fall about money being shifted from the Convention Center to the arena, he was shouted down by the monopoly daily paper and even by members of the overview committee who are supposedly keeping an eye on project finances on behalf of us taxpayers.

Back during the mayoral campaign, Democratic candidate Don McCorkell said he would stop work on the arena in order to get a handle on how much the facility would cost to complete and how much it would cost to operate and maintain. If the cost is going to exceed the budget by a wide margin, Tulsa's voters ought to decide whether or not it's worth proceeding. McCorkell's idea looks better all the time.

The fact that we've already put tens of millions into the arena doesn't mean it makes sense to throw good money after bad. (See "sunk costs, fallacy of.")

Meanwhile, County Commissioner Randi Miller, who had been mum about potential overages, not wanting to jeopardize renewal of the County's 4-to-Fix-Tax, now seems to be trying to recast herself as a taxpayer watchdog.

Some of us can remember when she was asked by Republican leaders, back in 2003, to make the arena a separate item on the Vision 2025 ballot, to give the voters a clear opportunity to vote against the arena without having to vote against the higher education improvements that were tied with it.

Miller stood by and did nothing at the time. She continued to go along to get along, voting with the other commissioners to sole-source the Vision 2025 financial contracts to favored vendors. After Vision 2025 was approved, when Medlock raised concerns about oversight and governance, Miller was silent.

On the other hand, Miller was more than happy, back on March 20, to grant a Murphy Brothers a 10-year exclusive contract to operate the Tulsa State Fair midway, despite complaints about rising prices and declining quality of the Murphy Brothers operation. The midway contract was not put out for competitive bids. Miller's support for the sweetheart deal with Murphy Brothers came after her mayoral campaign received a $5,000 contribution from Loretta Murphy, wife of Murphy Brothers owner Jerry Murphy.

Medlock, a genuine taxpayer watchdog, is continuing to keep an eye on arena expenditures at his blog, medblogged.blogspot.com.

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About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on April 26, 2006 12:59 AM.

HB 2559: Attacking local control of zoning was the previous entry in this blog.

Norman's complaint is the next entry in this blog.

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