Tulsa Zoning: September 2003 Archives

Zoning disputes -- 71st & Harvard


At last night's monthly meeting of the Midtown Coalition of Neighborhood Associations we discussed three contentious zoning issues. Taken together they raise the question of whether our land use planning process is broken beyond repair. Here's a bit about one of them.

On the southwest corner of 71st & Harvard, F&M Bank wants to build a new branch, along with a couple of smaller office buildings. (Here is the case report for the zoning change application.) Currently there is only residential development at that intersection, despite a six-lane arterial that carries over 50,000 cars a day past that corner. The site is vacant, zoned for low-density, single-family homes (RS-1). To put a bank on that corner, low-intensity office zoning (OL) is required.

The zoning change has been approved by a near unanimous vote of the Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission (TMAPC) -- Dell Coutant was the sole dissenting vote. As a zoning change, it's a change to the city ordinances, and must go before the City Council for approval. That will happen in the next few weeks.

It would make life difficult for neighboring property owners if the City Council could grant any zoning change it wished -- if, say, they could arbitrarily rezone a residential lot in the middle of a neighborhood to permit a skyscraper. So as a safeguard, every parcel of land is assigned a land use designation by the Comprehensive Plan. This land use designation is supposed to limit the kinds of zoning to which the parcel can be changed. This often comes into play when pastures are developed -- the whole square mile may be zoned agricultural (AG), but the Comprehensive Plan map may show a land use designation of low-intensity residential in the center of the mile, medium-intensity commercial at the section corners ("arterial nodes") with medium-intensity residential as a buffer between. There is a matrix in the Comprehensive Plan showing which zoning classifications are considered "in accordance" with the different land use designations.

In this case, the Comprehensive Plan designates the site's land use as low-intensity residential, with which OL zoning is not in accordance, according to the zoning matrix. Nevertheless, the TMAPC voted to recommend approval to the City Council. If the Council approves the rezoning, at some point in the future, the TMAPC and Council will consider amending the Comprehensive Plan to bring it into line with the rezoning decision, thus putting the cart before the horse. This happens rather often, which raises the question of the value of having a Comprehensive Plan at all. If the Comprehensive Plan is consistently ignored by the TMAPC and the Council, it can't provide useful guidance to a property owner or prospective owner who wants to know what he will be permitted to do with his property -- or, just as important, what his neighbors will be permitted to do with theirs. Many planners and zoning attorneys insist that it makes sense to ignore the Comprehensive Plan, because most of it is over 20 years old, it hasn't been kept up-to-date, and there isn't the money to update it now.

A bank may very well be the least disruptive and most compatible land use for that site, but approving the change would mean ignoring the rules of the game, and setting a precedent for future inconsistent zoning changes nearby. Here's what Jon Stuart, who lives near the site, had to say in a letter to the Whirled:

This request should be denied because the longterm master plan contemplates no such zoning change and all four corners are zoned residential. This zoning, if passed, would be adverse on the city of Tulsa because it would open every single residential corner at the intersection of any arterial street to commercial zoning. It could lead to a zoning request free-for-all that could easily spread to 31st Street and Lewis Avenue, 41st Street and Lewis Avenue as well as any undeveloped corner in the city. Spot commercial zoning should be the exception, not the norm.

Once the corner is zoned for commercial, I think a strong argument could be made that the property next door could qualify for commercial zoning, which could eventually take us to the point where Harvard Avenue looks like 11th Street. ...

How this zoning request turns out will set the stage of residential zoning for years to come. The importance of this action will speak volumes for our city and its elected officials. ...

It would be better to go through the proper process to amend the Comprehensive Plan first -- have a debate about what kind of development belongs at that corner and at similar corners throughout the city. Consistent application of the rules and doing all things "decently and in order" serves the interests of homeowners and developers alike.

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This page is a archive of entries in the Tulsa Zoning category from September 2003.

Tulsa Zoning: October 2003 is the next archive.

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