Keep the Fairgrounds in the city limits
In a recent issue of Urban Tulsa Weekly, Terry Simonson, who left his position as Mayor Dewey Bartlett Jr's chief of staff under an ethical cloud, makes a very weak case for de-annexing the Tulsa County Fairgrounds (aka Expo Square) from the City of Tulsa.
Over the history of the Fairgrounds' existence at their current location, various portions have been inside and outside the city limits. In 2007, the City Council voted to annex all 230-some acres of it, to be effective in January 2009. The delay was the result of a deal between then-Mayor Kathy Taylor and the county commission. County commissioners, who double as members of the Tulsa County Public Facilities Authority (TCPFA, aka the Fair Board), warned of dire consequences to the prosperity of Expo Square and the city if the annexation went through. Because the City surrounded the unincorporated territory on all four sides, it did not need the consent of the owner -- Tulsa County -- to complete the annexation.
(Note that Simonson neglects to inform the readers that three of the TCPFA trustees are the county commissioners, and the other two members are appointed by the county commissioners.)
As Simonson himself acknowledges, the years since annexation have been good years for Expo Square. The Tulsa State Fair has "come out ahead" the last three years -- all three years the fairgrounds have been completely within the city limits. The Arabian Horse Show renewed its contract through 2017. Gun shows continue to draw big crowds.
Having to collect city sales tax and comply with city regulations hasn't hurt Expo Square's ability to attract trade shows, horse shows, and other special events, and it hasn't hurt the Tulsa State Fair.
Despite the success Expo Square has enjoyed during its time within the city limits, Simonson calls for its deannexation:
Because Expo Square tries to operate free of intrusive government regulations and politics, it's time to turn back the clock and for the city council to de annex the fairgrounds. Some will remember that in an ill-fated and short-sighted attempt to shore up its own failing financial picture, the city believed in 2009 that if it imposed the city's sales tax on sales at the fairgrounds, and charge the fairgrounds city utility rates, it would be a tremendous financial windfall. It was never going to be, and it hasn't proven to be. Instead, Expo now spends over $148,000 on utility charges it didn't have to pay, has to deal with the inspection, permitting, and other city government red tape regulations.
I don't like intrusive regulations and politics either, but if a city regulation is unjustified, Simonson should work for its repeal citywide, not try to get a special exemption for the Fairgrounds. If a city regulation is reasonable, it should apply to everyone.
What Simonson wants, really, is what any landlord would love to have: The ability to lure tenants away from other landlords with the promise of tax and regulatory exemptions. That's hardly fair to landlords who can't offer the exemption, especially when everyone depends on the same public services.
Whether or not collecting city sales taxes at the Fairgrounds has been a windfall, Fairgrounds retail sales now contribute their fair share towards the upkeep of the city streets that allow people to reach the Fairgrounds, the upkeep of the city storm sewers that carry stormwater away from the Fairgrounds (a considerable amount since so much of the 230+ acres is impermeable), and the cost of city police and fire protection for the Fairgrounds and environs.
One of the most important benefits of having the Fairgrounds within the city limits is that the planning of its future development will be done in conjunction with planning for the adjoining neighborhoods, guided by the City of Tulsa's comprehensive plan, with the involvement of City of Tulsa planning staff, and with the final say of the Tulsa City Council. I suspect that eliminating this independent oversight of Fairgrounds development is the real aim of Simonson's push for deannexation.
When the Fairgrounds was outside the city limits, there were no checks and balances over land use changes. The TCPFA, made up of the three county commissioners and two people they appoint, would propose a special exception or variance, and the County Board of Adjustment (appointed by the county commissioners) would approve it. Or the TCPFA (three county commissioners plus two people they appoint) would propose a zoning change or comprehensive plan amendment, the TMAPC would make a recommendation, and the county commissioners could vote for the TCPFA's proposal regardless of the TMAPC's recommendation. There was no one looking at proposed changes to land use at the Fairgrounds to mitigate any impact on the surrounding neighborhoods.
This is the heart of the issue: With Drillers Stadium and the old Tulsa City-County Health Department likely to be redeveloped, just across 15th Street from a residential area, City of Tulsa planning staff and City of Tulsa councilors should evaluate any of the TCPFA's redevelopment plans in accordance with the comprehensive plan and the zoning code. Terry Simonson and his former county bosses don't want that, it would seem.
Simonson makes a very misleading statement near the end of his essay:
The state and local economies have improved enough that the city council should do the right thing by giving Expo Square back to the TCPFA.
The city never took Expo Square away from the TCPFA. The Fairgrounds are owned, as they have been for decades, by Tulsa County. Just like the County Courthouse, the David L. Moss Correctional Center, County Election Board, LaFortune Park, the county road barn at 56th and Garnett -- all owned by Tulsa County, but within the Tulsa city limits and governed by the City of Tulsa's ordinances. Other county properties are within the limits of other Tulsa County municipalities -- Haikey Creek Park, for example. Simonson isn't calling for deannexation of those county properties; why should Expo Square be any different?
MORE: Some past BatesLine articles and Urban Tulsa Weekly op-eds about annexation:
Again, it has to be emphasized that annexation wouldn't change ownership. The fairgrounds would still be owned by Tulsa County and run by the Tulsa County Public Facilities Authority (TCPFA, aka the fair board), which consists of the three county commissioners and two other members.... Annexation wouldn't affect the fair board's ability to enter into long-term, non-competitive sweetheart contracts.
But annexation would eliminate the anomalies in law enforcement and tax rates. The fairgrounds and the surrounding land would be subject to the same zoning ordinances and zoning process. The same sales tax rate would apply to businesses on and off the fairgrounds. The same hotel/motel tax rate would apply to the fairgrounds motel and to nearby motels. The same noise ordinances would apply on and off the fairgrounds.
When the fair board considers a lease, they'd have to consider whether the proposed activity complies with city ordinances. I'm sure existing uses would be grandfathered in, but any zoning relief needed for whatever replaces Bell's would have to pass muster with the City of Tulsa's Board of Adjustment (which applies the law as it is; one of Bill LaFortune's positive legacies) or the Tulsa City Council. Currently, anything the fair board (made up mostly of the county commissioners) wants to allow only needs approval by the County Board of Adjustment (appointed by the county commissioners) or the county commissioners themselves. There's no independent check on fairgrounds development.
UTW, March 7, 2007: Annexation Fixation
Typically, unincorporated areas are places with very little development and much open space. When your nearest neighbor lives a quarter-mile away, what he does on his property isn't likely to affect your enjoyment of your property. In such a sparsely settled area, you don't need many rules to maintain peace, safety, and quality of life.
But in a densely developed area, those rules are essential. As Robert Frost wrote, "Good fences make good neighbors." I spent several years of my childhood in a subdivision in an unincorporated area, and I can attest to the problems created by noise, dogs allowed to run free, lots allowed to grow wild.
To maintain quality of life where homes and businesses are packed closely together, the city regulates land use, noise, lighting, and other potential sources of annoyance that may spill over onto a neighbor's property.
But here in the heart of our city is a huge chunk of land that isn't subject to any of those rules, and without those rules in place, the Tulsa County Public Facilities Authority has not been a considerate neighbor....
The TCPFA has allowed outdoor auto racing (in violation of a 1984 promise) and the annual Chili Bowl indoor races, both of which create noise in excess of city standards. During the 2004 Chili Bowl race, even with the Expo Building's doors closed, noise was measured at 85 dB nearly a half-mile away. You can imagine the impact on homes right across the street.
If Expo Square were within the city limits, the TCPFA would have to provide better noise insulation for the building or require Chili Bowl participants to muffle their cars. Given the economic impact of the Chili Bowl, I'm sure that the city would make reasonable accommodation on that issue, as well as on the issue of city building permits (another concern cited by annexation opponents). What matters is that the city would be in the loop, not helplessly enduring whatever nuisances the county chooses to harbor at the Fairgrounds.
The Chili Bowl continues to thrive and grow, by the way, notwithstanding the jurisdiction of the City of Tulsa.
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