Tulsa zoning code draft: My comments

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Just under the wire, I submitted my comments a week ago Saturday on the draft for public comment of the proposed zoning code for the City of Tulsa. This is a critical document for Tulsa's future, far more important than the debate over water-in-the-river.

The current zoning code is nearly 40 years old, based on the Vision 2000 comprehensive planning process of the 1970s. While the current code has been tweaked at the margins, it still reflects the view of urban planning that was in vogue in the age of bell bottoms, earth tones, and avocado green kitchen appliances: Strictly segregate work from home from church from school from shopping. Zone for what happens inside the building, rather than for what affects the neighbors (parking, noise, building scale and appearance). Treat established neighborhoods as obsolete areas in need of redevelopment.

The mid-'70s planning approach dates back even further. You can see the same themes in the earliest planning documents produced by the Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission in the late '50s. These principles have shaped Tulsa's development as it tripled in land area in 1966 and filled in the new territory over the next half-century, producing the traffic headaches we see particularly in south Tulsa and the erosion of many of Tulsa's closer-in pre-war neighborhoods.

Tulsa's new comprehensive plan reflects a better approach to development, as I explained when I spoke in support of its adoption in 2010:

The PLANiTULSA Policy Plan does an admirable job of accommodating growth and redevelopment while protecting the qualities that make most of Tulsa's neighborhoods desirable places to live, shop, play, and work. If the plan's recommendations are adopted and ultimately implemented in the City of Tulsa zoning code, the result will be clear, objective standards and a predictable environment for all stakeholders, including both property owners and developers. That predictable environment will help to reduce conflicts, uncertainty, and costs in redevelopment.

(In a 2006 column, I explained in greater detail the principles that should guide the ideal system of land-use regulation.)

Note the emphasis added above. The comprehensive plan doesn't accomplish anything unless it guides the development of city ordinances and capital improvements. So the City of Tulsa hired Duncan Associates to develop a new zoning code guided by the plan, and in February a draft was released, opening a four-month public comment period. On the Feedback Tulsa website -- the City's official online forum -- you can read background information about the draft zoning code, the draft, and the public comments that were submitted.

While you can find the draft code on the city's website, here is a local copy of the 2015 draft Tulsa zoning code for your convenience.

I submitted a brief overall comment and a spreadsheet of comments addressing specific provisions of the code. Here's the overall comment:

The draft code is well-organized, and the language is clear. The illustrations are helpful. I appreciate the thrust of the code toward handling routine and benign matters administratively rather than continuing to clog the BoA and Council agendas. The addition of new building types and new zoning types is also welcome. It should be remembered that the zoning code exists to serve the interests of all Tulsans -- home owners, commercial property owners, and tenants -- not just the interests of those who make a living in the real estate and development industry.

While the zoning code draft embodies many of the principles set out in the new comprehensive plan, it appears to bear the hatchet marks of development lobbyists seeking to continue to do business the same old way. Effectively killing form-based codes, granting of significant authority to a temporary city contractor, building high hurdles for the establishment of overlay districts which are weaker than those available in peer cities in this region, and limiting historic preservation to residential areas are examples of the vandalism that appears to have been perpetrated in the drafting of this code by those who were granted a special seat at the table.

In addition to the comments below, I concur with the comments submitted by Tulsa Now and Jamie Jamieson.

After submitting my comments, I noticed several more that I would endorse; I'll try to provide some excerpts in a separate entry. Here is a link to Tulsa Now's statement on the draft zoning code.

I should explain the reference to a temporary city contractor. The City of Tulsa contracts with the Indian Nations Council of Governments (INCOG) to maintain its zoning and planning records and to analyze and make recommendations on zoning, special exception, and variance cases that come before the city's Board of Adjustment and the Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission. INCOG has two core roles under state statute, but its role in the City of Tulsa's land use planning process is contractual and renewed annually. It is also somewhat redundant, as Tulsa has its own planning staff which is quite capable of analyzing applications and making recommendations as well. Most of Tulsa's neighboring municipalities handle zoning and planning internally -- their own staff and their own planning commission, more directly accountable to the voters' elected representatives.

The draft of the zoning code gives considerable discretionary powers to a "land use administrator" who is identified as the director of development services for INCOG. One provision in the draft code gives the same discretionary power to both the land use administrator and the development administrator (an official in the City's planning department), presumably so that if a developer doesn't get the answer he wants from one official, he can get approval from the other official. If this INCOG land use administrator is biased in the exercise of his discretionary powers, city officials would have very little recourse. In my comments, I state that INCOG staff should only be given the task of record-keeping and administering the process; discretionary powers should be retained within city government.

My suspicion is that the development industry representatives who were given a special seat at the table to guide the drafting of the zoning code felt that they would have more influence, as they have in the past, over INCOG planning staff than over City of Tulsa planning staff.

And here (after the jump) are my comments on specific provisions:

Code Section or Topic Issue (Question, Comment or Suggestion)
1.090-A
Meanings and Intent
Refer to a specific edition of Merriam-Webster, as definitions can change over time.
1.090-I
Public Officials and Agencies
This section should be written to leave open the possibility that the officials and agencies assigned to these roles may change. A future mayor and council may divide or combine the planning and development department. The City of Tulsa may withdraw from TMAPC and choose to organize a city planning commission under Title 11, Chapter XLVII, as Oklahoma City has done. The City may choose to award its land development services contract to some organization other than INCOG or to bring it in-house. This section could instead identify the officials and agencies currently assigned to these roles, noting the legal basis in ordinance, statute, executive order, etc., for each assignment.
1.100-C The zoning code should not grant discretionary authority to any outside contractor, as this provision currently does.
10.040
Height Designations
I applaud the use of step-backs for taller buildings.
25.070-D, subsection 3
Subdivision Plats
I applaud the requirement to make the City of Tulsa a beneficiary of covenants governing MPDs, so that the city has the standing to enforce the covenants, but this provision should require City Council approval of covenant amendments, as the TMAPC is merely an advisory body; only the City Council has the authority to accept a change to a legal obligation involving the city. This provision should also clarify that the city development department may be proactive in denying building permits that violate the terms of these covenants and issuing fines to violations of the covenants without having to resort to the courts to enforce them.
40.060-B
Bed & Breakfasts
This provision is unnecessarily restrictive. A frequent visitor to Tulsa that finds a congenial home-away-from-home at a local B&B should not have to find another place to stay just because the 30-day limit has been reached. This provision also deprives B&B owners of the financial stability of having loyal customers. This looks suspiciously like a provision to benefit the hotel/motel industry to the detriment of small business.
40.280
Parking Structures
I applaud the requirement for habitable floor space fronting sidewalks and horizontal decks.
45.090
Home Occupations
I applaud the move to performance-based standards. What is seen on the outside of the home, rather than what happens inside, should be the aim of regulation. The provisions in J-4 and J-6, however, seem unreasonably restrictive, and the provision in J-7 regarding interior square footage is unnecessarily intrusive.
45.160
Rooming Units
Where is "the number permitted in the household" defined?
55.050-H
Shared Parking
I applaud the move toward lower parking minimums and more flexible methods of meeting those requirements. Table 55-2 should, however, be revised to reflect the fact that a place of religious assembly will typically hit its peak parking demand only for a few hours one morning per weekend, not for 11 hours on both days of the weekend. A church that has Sunday morning worship will typically generate no parking demand on Saturdays and could easily share parking with a business that was closed on Sundays.
65.070-A
Irrigation
The zoning code should not grant discretionary authority to any outside contractor, as this provision currently does.
65.080-B
Preparation of Landscape Plan
The zoning code should not grant discretionary authority to any outside contractor, as this provision currently does.
65.080-D
Alternative Compliance Landscape and Screening Plans
The zoning code should not grant discretionary authority to any outside contractor, as this provision currently does.
70.010-B
Review and Decision-making Authority (Summary Table)
"Or land use administrator" should be deleted from Note 3. City officials should not be allowed to grant or delegate discretionary authority to any outside contractor.
70.010-C
Applications and Fees
The zoning code should not grant discretionary authority to any outside contractor, as subsection d (Guidelines) currently does.
70.010-D Application Processing Cycles The governing body of the City of Tulsa should have the sole authority to approve the land use process, including cycles, timelines, and deadlines. The land use administrator's role in this situation should be limited to making recommendations.
70.020-A
Authority to File
Delete "or land use administrator." This is far too much power to grant to an outside contractor. The land use administrator's role should be limited to managing the land use process and maintaining records.
70.020-B
Review and Recommendation--Land Use Administrator
Reassign this authority to the development administrator. This is far too much power to grant to an outside contractor. The land use administrator's role should be limited to managing the land use process and maintaining records.
70.030-C Review and Recommendation--Land Use Administrator Reassign this authority to the development administrator. This is far too much power to grant to an outside contractor. The land use administrator's role should be limited to managing the land use process and maintaining records.
70.040-C
Application filing
Reassign the review and recommendation authority to the development administrator. This is far too much power to grant to an outside contractor. The land use administrator's role should be limited to managing the land use process and maintaining records.
70.050-C
Review and Action by Land Use Administrator; Appeals
Reassign the review and recommendation authority to the development administrator. This is far too much power to grant to an outside contractor. The land use administrator's role should be limited to managing the land use process and maintaining records. The City Council's discretion to require council approval of site plans, noted in footnote 142, should be retained.
70.090-A
Purpose and Applicability
Interpretive and administrative authority should not be delegated to an outside contractor. The "and" linking development administrator and land use administrator is a potential source for conflict. What if the two officials disagree on interpretation?
70.090-B
Authority
The zoning code should not permit delegating discretionary authority to any outside contractor, as this provision currently does.
70.120-D
Review and Report--Land Use Administrator
Reassign this authority to the development administrator. This is far too much power to grant to an outside contractor. The land use administrator's role should be limited to managing the land use process and maintaining records.
70.130-E
Review and Report--Land Use Administrator
Reassign this authority to the development administrator. This is far too much power to grant to an outside contractor. The land use administrator's role should be limited to managing the land use process and maintaining records.
70.140-I
Appeals
Board of Adjustment decisions and decisions of administrative officials should be appealable to the City Council.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on June 15, 2015 11:22 AM.

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