Tulsa Realtor Martha Thomas Cobb on historic preservation zoning

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URGENT UPDATE: I've heard that Ms. Cobb sent an email blast that's generating some panicked comments attacking PLANiTULSA. If her email is as misinformative as her remarks to the TMAPC (see below), her influence will need to be countered by those who have actually read the PLANiTULSA policy plan and understand it. Your last opportunity to weigh in is tomorrow (March 10, 2010), at the TMAPC public hearing, beginning at 1:30. You can also fill in a comment card but it must be submitted before the TMAPC public hearing tomorrow in order to be considered by the TMAPC.

If you're wondering about the opposition to PLANiTULSA, Tulsa's first comprehensive plan update in a generation, here is one example, from the Feb. 23, 2010 TMAPC public hearing on the plan. Martha Thomas Cobb is a Realtor, and during her remarks to the TMAPC, she says that she tells her potential buyers that they can't remodel a house in a Historic Preservation zoning district without their neighbors' permission, and so the buyers decide they'd rather not buy houses in those districts. Therefore, in her view, overlay zoning and design guidelines are harmful to a neighborhood. She objects to the PLANiTULSA policy plan because of its advocacy of "areas of stability" where infill should be compatible with existing development.

Watch her comments for yourself in the TGOV video of the Feb. 23, 2010, TMAPC public hearing on PLANiTULSA. The key quote is about 1:20:36 into the video:

Swan Lake and North Maple Ridge are areas that have also added designations of preservation. As a Realtor, once I explain the fact that somebody cannot remodel without the plan being approved by their neighbors, unless they are happy with the house as it stands -- which nobody ever is when you're showing them property -- they choose other locations in town without this obstacle.

There are a couple of significant errors in her statement. In the first place, HP overlay zoning in Tulsa governs only what is visible from the street. You can remodel the interior of a home in an HP district to your heart's content without needing any special approval peculiar to the HP district. See Title 42, Chapter 10 A, for all the details, but here's the key provision, section 1053 C:

Within a Historic Preservation District, work, as defined in this Chapter, shall not commence unless a Certificate of Appropriateness has been first issued; provided however, that work related to the following shall not require a Certificate of Appropriateness:

1. Ordinary maintenance and repair which shall include the removal, installation, or replacement of guttering; the removal or replacement of roof covering with like material; and the application of any paint color to non-masonry surfaces.

2. Interior of buildings and structures.

3. Portions or parts of buildings, structures, or sites not visible from adjoining streets.

4. Accessory structures or buildings, such as storage sheds, garages, decks, patios, fencing, swimming pools and pool houses that are not part of the primary structure, provided however, such structures and buildings are not located in front yards.

5. Installation of radio or television antenna.

6. General landscape maintenance and planting of new organic materials.

7. Work required for temporary stablization of a building or structure due to damage.

And if you do want to change the exterior facade of the house, your neighbors don't have the power to veto it. Approval is handled by the Tulsa Preservation Commission and is granted or denied on the basis of clear standards in the zoning ordinances, and if you're not happy with the TPC's decision you can appeal it to the City Board of Adjustment.

The kind of design standards anticipated by the PLANiTULSA land use plan to define compatible infill would generally be less stringent than HP standards. From p. 33 of the land use chapter of the policy plan:

The Existing Residential Neighborhood category is intended to preserve and enhance Tulsa's existing single family neighborhoods. Development activities in these areas should be limited to the rehabilitation or improvement of existing homes, or small-scale infill that that complements the character of the neighborhood and is consistent in form, scale, rhythm and proportion as seen from the street.

But getting back to Cobb's comments: Suppose you owned a home in an HP district but had to sell it because your company was relocating you to another city. How would it make you feel, knowing that a Realtor was deterring buyers who were interested in your house with inaccurate comments about the impact of HP zoning on their ability to remodel the house? Those inaccurate comments might mean you're paying on two houses for several months more. I am not a lawyer, but I wonder whether such comments might be grounds for a tortious interference claim. I am not a Realtor either, but as a layman I would think that, at the very least, a Realtor who would let his personal prejudice against and/or misunderstanding of historic preservation overlay districts interfere with acting in the seller's interests could be at odds with state real estate regulations or the Realtor ethics code.

TMAPC member Phil Marshall, himself a Realtor and homebuilder as well as a past president of the Brookside Neighborhood Association, asked Cobb, "Do you find a lot of rundown homes in these areas [Swan Lake and North Maple Ridge]?" Her reply, "Yeah, pretty much." (Marshall's question seemed tongue-in-cheek to me.)

To the contrary, here's a heat map showing the value of recent home sales in the Tulsa area, with North Maple Ridge and Swan Lake right on the $250K border. A quick scan of Zillow for recent home sales show that most homes in these areas are going for around $100 per square foot or better. In Tulsa, that's an indication of strong demand.

The general thrust of Cobb's remarks were that overlay districts with design guidelines are a violation of a homeowner's constitutionally protected property rights. But every parcel in the city has restrictions on setback, lot coverage, height, and use. In an overlay district, those restrictions are customized.

Oklahoma City
has had districts of this sort since 1981, governing both residential and commercial areas, including Bricktown and downtown. Wichita, Kansas City, Dallas, Fort Worth, Denver, San Antonio, Austin, St. Louis -- nearly all of our peer cities in this region and beyond have some type of land use district where design requirements for new development are customized to be compatible with existing development in a district. They go by many names -- overlay, conservation, special review, special use.

One more thing: Cobb said she didn't think there were real estate builders and brokers and attorneys involved in the PLANiTULSA process. In fact, representatives from the Home Builders Association and other real estate organizations, including Paul Kane, Executive Vice President of the Home Builders Association of Greater Tulsa, and Al Unser, CEO of the Greater Tulsa Association of Realtors, along with other prominent members of the real estate and development community (e.g. Bruce Bolzle of KMO, Ken Klein of Kleinco, and Paul Wilson of Twenty-First Properties) were members of the PLANiTULSA citizens' team that provided oversight and advice throughout the process.

MORE: If the name Martha Thomas Cobb seems familiar, I wrote about a mass email she sent prior to the 2008 city election that began "CALL YOUR NEIGHBORHOOD COUNCIL REPRESENTATIVE AND TELL THEM YOU ARE AGAINST MIDTOWN TULSA."

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on March 9, 2010 7:35 AM.

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