"The screams of the tyrannical minority"

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"Democratic government will be the more successful the more the public opinion ruling iit is enlightened and inspired by full and thorough discussion....The greatest danger threatening democratic institutions comes from those influences which tend to stifle or demoralize discussion." -- Carl Schurz

For a serious contender, Jason Eric Gomez is running one of the most bizarre campaigns for City Council I think I have ever witnessed.

In 2004, Gomez ran as the pro-neighborhood candidate against incumbent Tom Baker, former Tulsa Fire Chief and the pro-developer-lobby, establishment candidate. During his years as fire chief Baker famously characterized leaders in Renaissance Neighborhood, of whom Gomez is one, as C.A.V.E. People -- Citizens Against Virtually Everything. Despite Baker's massive funding advantage and Baker's endorsement by the Tulsa World, Gomez came within 24 votes of Baker.

Instead of building on that nearly-successful formula, this time Gomez is pitting himself against Midtown neighborhood advocates, attacking me and every other neighborhood advocate who thinks neighborhood conservation districts (NCDs) are an idea worth pursuing.

An NCD is a zoning designation that allows new development while protecting the characteristics that made the neighborhood attractive for development in the first place. Most large cities in the region have this designation -- Oklahoma City has had an equivalent designation for a quarter-century, with even more stringent requirements on infill development in the downtown and Bricktown areas.

There is a draft NCD enabling ordinance that has been discussed during the Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission's (TMAPC) work session. The proposed ordinance is limited in scope -- much more so than similar ordinances in Oklahoma City, San Antonio, and other cities -- and it is very early in the process.

There is an opportunity to have a reasoned discussion about the pros and cons of the proposed ordinance. Skeptics could identify specific provisions that are problematic and suggest alternative provisions and safeguards that would be sufficient to win their support. Those who would never under any circumstances support an NCD ordinance should say so plainly and set out their philosophical objections to the concept, and they should be prepared to explain how those objections fit within a coherent philosophy of land-use planning and zoning, something Gomez wasn't prepared to do at the Pearl District Association forum:

The obvious follow-up question came toward the end of the forum:

"Doesn't all zoning infringe on property rights, and if so, why is the idea of conservation district different from that? Why is it a further infringement on property rights that are already infringed by zoning?"

Gomez's verbatim reply: "We already regulate land use. We already regulate what you can and cannot do with your property. When people buy a property, they look at what the policies are, they understand what the zoning is, and if that should change, there has to be a--it's a fine line, I believe, between private property rights and zoning, and absent of covenants that are not easily enforceable, when you buy a property in an older neighborhood--I live in an older neighborhood--you do understand that these things may happen and it, um..." As his voice trailed off to a mumble, he sat down.

Rather than engaging in reasoned debate about the issue, Gomez is taking shots at people who supported him four years ago, whose votes he needs to win this election.

Gomez made his pitch to the voters in an op-ed in the current issue of Urban Tulsa Weekly. (Maria Barnes had her say last week.) Gomez had this to say about NCD supporters:

Neither the politically connected special interest nor the screams of the tyrannical minority should be able to trample on their neighbors personal property rights.

So I'm part of a screaming tyrannical minority who want to trample on their neighbors' personal property rights. And here's what he thinks of his opponent, Councilor Maria Barnes, who supports the idea of NCDs:

Our current city councilor is a nice human being, but manically obsessed with special interests.

While he obviously doesn't like the draft NCD, he doesn't single out any provision as dangerous, but says that "the lack of specifics within the proposal could significantly harm all neighborhoods." The proposal is in fact very specific, as specific as the zoning code provision that enables Planned Unit Developments (PUDs), a form of zoning overlay that is very popular with developers.

In the debate over how we protect the character of some of our city's greatest assets -- our Midtown neighborhoods -- Gomez has opted to attack rather than offer a solution. That's a great disappointment to me.

I first got to know Eric in 1998 when we were both involved in the Infill Task Force zoning subcommittee, which discussed a proposed NCD ordinance that was much more far-reaching than the current proposal. Eric endorsed me when I ran for City Council in 2002 (as did Maria). I was happy to endorse him during his 2004 run, noting his record as a defender of his neighborhood's integrity and character, fighting against development that would have intruded on the residential part of the neighborhood.

When I received an e-mail from a very vocal anti-NCD advocate claiming that Gomez absolutely opposed NCDs, I found it hard to believe, based on his record.

So I e-mailed Eric on March 9, asking him if the claim was true, and asking him to reply with what he would change about the proposed NCD draft (which I included as an attachment) to make it something he could support. Here's what I wrote:

Eric,

Congratulations on your primary win!

Neighborhood Conservation Districts have been in the news lately, and I have some questions for you about your position on the issue.

You'll recall that we served together on the zoning and subdivision regulations subcommittee of the Infill Task Force, back in 1998-1999, along with Sharry White, Scott Swearingen, and Charles Norman. We discussed the concept of neighborhood conservation districts and even reviewed a draft ordinance that had been prepared by INCOG staff.

I was convinced then and remain convinced that we need to move beyond our one-size-fits-all zoning code. Just like Oklahoma City and many other cities in our region, Tulsa should have rules in place that are objective and clear but customized for each neighborhood, allowing infill while protecting the character of the neighborhood. The issue was at the heart of my 2002 campaign for City Council and the reason I won the support of nearly every neighborhood leader in District 4. My position also earned me the opposition of the Tulsa World and the developers' lobby.

So I'm happy to see that at long last there's a working draft of a Neighborhood Conservation District ordinance before the TMAPC, even if it is very limited in scope.

Unfortunately, some people are spreading fear and falsehoods about the proposal. I've been forwarded several e-mails from Martha Thomas Cobb, who seems to be leading the opposition to NCDs. She seems to think you're on her side on this issue. In one message, she wrote: "Also, I vistied with Eric Gomez who is running against Maria Barnes. He opposes this ordinance because of the property rights issue. Good to know. He is a good man and understands the property rights infringement and property price drop that will follow with more restrictions."

That doesn't fit with my understanding of your position, but I want to be sure my understanding is correct. So I've attached a copy of the working draft NCD ordinance. I'd ask you to read it and answer the following questions:

1. If you were on the City Council, would you vote to approve this ordinance as written?

2. If not, what specific changes would have to be made to this ordinance in order for you to vote for it?

3. If you wouldn't support an NCD ordinance under any circumstances, are there any other measures you would approve as a city councilor to protect the character of our midtown neighborhoods against inappropriate infill?

I'd like to be able to reassure neighborhood leaders and other homeowners that no matter who wins the District 4 election, our councilor will move forward with a Neighborhood Conservation District ordinance.

Thanks,

Michael Bates

Instead of replying by e-mail, Eric phoned me. He didn't want to get specific about his objections to the draft NCD ordinance, but repeated his concern about "functional obsolescence" (nothing in the ordinance prevents the demolition and replacement of a functionally obsolescent building -- or any other building for that matter) and said that he thought it was being rushed along. He also said he didn't have time to study the issue and rewrite the ordinance in the midst of a campaign.

I told Eric I thought it was important for him to spell out his philosophy of zoning and land-use and to explain how he would address the concerns raised by teardowns and McMansions in Midtown if not with an NCD ordinance. I told him that he would need the support of people who are concerned about the issue.

I had hoped that Gomez's race this year against Maria Barnes would be a situation where both candidates would be solid on neighborhood and planning issues. I have had my differences with Barnes over her support for the City Hall move and her opposition to the Council resolution requesting immigration status checks to be run on people taken into custody by the Tulsa Police Department. I wish she were tougher on budget issues.

Gomez has apparently changed since his last race, but it's hard to know why. His campaign manager is (and was in 2004) Jim Burdge, who worked on the unsuccessful 2005 campaign to recall City Councilors Chris Medlock and Jim Mautino, an effort heavily funded by the development lobby. Gomez's op-ed is reminiscent in style of the Tulsa Tribunal attack tabloidsused during the recall campaign, which smeared the councilors as mentally and emotionally unbalanced.

This year the Tulsa Whirled has endorsed Gomez making Barnes' support for NCDs the main reason to vote her out of office. The Whirled condemned me for the same reason, although they were unwilling to say so in their editorial. The fact that they have to address the concept of zoning reform and attack it openly, rather than sweep it under the rug, is a sign of progress.

(Is it just me, or are there striking parallels between the Whirled's editorial and Gomez's op-ed? They seem to hit exactly the same talking points.)

I've been supporting the neighborhood conservation district concept for more than a decade, but I could still tolerate having a City Councilor who was opposed to the idea but willing to discuss it. I can't accept having a City Councilor who thinks people on the other side of the debate are screaming tyrants.

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2 Comments

Paul said:

I haven't heard much screaming on either side of the NCD issue. The TMAPC could improve the process of public participation by posting a Word file version of the draft ordinance on INCOG's website.

Through email, I've been communicating with the authors of the draft ordinance. It's difficult for me to attend work sessions, so email is an effective method of exchanging ideas.

I do have several concerns with the proposed ordinance, mostly about property rights. I've suggested several revisions to the draft, and I've received positive feedback from one Planning Commissioner.

Pamela said:

I just listened to KFAQ this morning. They had invited both Barnes and Gomez to appear on the program. Barnes accepted and told Chris that she had a good time. Gomez never responded to their request. It is evident that people that will not interview with people that will ask for details has something to hide. I do not live in her district. HOWEVER unless she has done something egregious I would more than likely vote for her since she has a track record and is not afraid to explain her perspective. I would not vote for anyone that refuses to state where they stand, whether they are in my party or not.

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on March 26, 2008 9:03 PM.

Oklahoma pro-life bill advances was the previous entry in this blog.

National Trust official praises NCD column is the next entry in this blog.

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