Tulsa Zoning: November 2003 Archives

One of the irksome things about the Council's discussion of the zoning protest process -- the ability of neighboring property owners to force a Council supermajority requirement to enact a zoning change -- is the insistence that the law is vague or unclear, which was unfortunate for the neighbors, but them's the breaks. Part of the confusion claim regards the deadline by which petitions must be submitted for consideration -- three days before the planning commission hearing, or three days before the City Council hearing. There's talk of rewriting the ordinance to clarify the issue.

This is a crucial issue, because in their evaluation of the petitions submitted in the F&M Bank / 71st & Harvard protest, INCOG planning staff rejected anything submitted after three days before the planning commission hearing. The neighborhood submitted amended petitions at least three days prior to the City Council hearing.

Here is a reading comprehension test.

Below is the text of Title 42, Section 1703, paragraph E of Tulsa Revised Ordinances. (To read it in it's full context, click here.)

E. City Council Action on Zoning Map Amendments. The City Council shall hold a hearing on each application transmitted from the Planning Commission and on any proposed Zoning Map amendment initiated pursuant to Subsection 1703. B. The City Council shall approve the application as submitted, or as amended, or approve the application subject to modification, or deny the application. Prior to the hearing on the proposed rezoning ordinance before the City Council, the applicant shall remit to the office of the City Clerk a publication fee, said fee to be in accordance with the schedule of fees adopted by resolution of the City Council of the City of Tulsa. In case of a protest against such zoning change filed at least three days prior to said public hearing by the owners of 20% or more of the area of the lots included in such proposed change, or by the owners of 50% or more of the area of the lots within a 300' radius of the exterior boundary of the territory included in a proposed change such amendment shall not become effective except by the favorable vote of three-fourths of all the members of the City Council. Ord. Nos. 17689, 18465, 18641

Here is your comprehension question: The phrase "said public hearing" refers to which public hearing?

A. The Spanish Inquisition.

B. Lee Harvey Oswald's arraignment.

C. The hearing of the zoning case by the Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission, in accordance with precedents from Minnesota, Tannu Tuva, and the court of Captain Kangaroo.

D. The hearing of the zoning case by the City Council

30 seconds.... Time's up!

Here's how to score your answer:

If you said A, B, or C, congratulations!!! You have the necessary mental agility to serve in the City Attorney's office! When confronted with a legal situation that may inconvenience a politically-connected business, you need creativity to make that inconvenience go away! It takes imagination to read into the text ideas that aren't really there. Good work!

If you said D, so sorry! You are a legal literalist. You are cursed with the ability to see things as they really are. You naively believe that words mean things. Pathetic, really.

Councilor Randy Sullivan was in the news recently in connection with the 71st & Harvard rezoning. He made the paper again yesterday, over a zoning change that he opposed earlier this year, an opposition that had costly consequences for a new private school. His bizarre behavior in this case raises serious questions about his fitness for office.

Sullivan, who represents near south Tulsa, was one of those who led the charge for the controversial rezoning of 71st & Harvard. He was a major recipient of funds from F&M bank officers and won an early endorsement from the Whirled, which is owned by the chairman of F&M, Robert Lorton. At the October 30th council meeting, at which the neighborhood's protest petition was discussed, he voted to cut off debate before the shenanigans of INCOG and the City Attorney's office could be fully aired. Then he voted to invalidate the neighborhood's petition, even though it met every legitimate legal test. He took several opportunities to carp at his colleague Chris Medlock without adding anything substantive to the discussion. He also made some bizarre comments about being under a tub. Finally, he voted for the rezoning, in violation of the Comprehensive Plan.

I first met Randy Sullivan when we appeared as City Council candidates to speak to a Republican club. I asked him why he decided to run for Council, and his answer shaped my opinion of him, and that initial impression has been confirmed time and again. He told me that he and former Councilor (and prominent Chamber Pot) John Benjamin had been lounging in a hot tub while on a skiing vacation in Colorado (Aspen, if I remember correctly), and Benjamin encouraged him to run. Initially, he planned to run against Todd Huston, but then found out that Todd Huston wasn't his councilor, so he switched to run for the seat being vacated by Clay Bird. That gives you an idea of how engaged and concerned he was about city issues before plunging into politics.

As I said, there was a situation a few months ago when Mr. Sullivan actively fought against a very minor land use change. This case pitted him against the formidable Charles Norman, the man who wrote Tulsa's zoning code as City Attorney. Sullivan persisted in his lonely crusade against the change, despite the absence of objections from anyone else, baffling long-time observers of zoning issues.

Council to punt?


I hear that, rather than propose reforms and clarifications to the zoning protest process, councilors are lining up to punt the whole issue back to the TMAPC. The proposal will be on the agenda Thursday night. The proposal would direct the city clerk's office to provide packets of information about the rules for filing a zoning protest as they have been applied, and then would ask TMAPC to study amending the process, and report back to the Council when they're good and ready -- no deadline. And to give the issue back to the TMAPC? The TMAPC is stacked with people who want to be sure that a protest can never succeed.

Clearly, most of the Council wish this issue would go away. They hate having to choose between the big donors who fund their campaigns and the people who vote for them. Punting the issue back to TMAPC would give these councilors some political cover with their constitutents, without them having to do anything that would actually help their constituents. They're hoping the TMAPC doesn't report back until after the next election, if ever.

Let's show up Thursday night and hold their feet to the fire. Let them know that a vote for punting to the TMAPC is one more vote against fairness, against homeowners, against neighborhoods.

The neighbors are restless


Monday night's meeting of neighborhood leaders was a great success. I'm only getting time now to write about it. I had to leave the meeting early to get to a Coventry Chorale rehearsal (our concert is Friday night at 7:30), then home to do bills, get a bit of sleep, then work (including a work meeting), a TulsaNow leadership meeting, and the Midtown Coalition meeting. Then some family business to take care of, and now finally a minute or two to blog before I pitch forward and fall asleep with the laptop as a pillow.

About 130 people from about 40 neighborhood associations gathered Monday night to discuss the 71st and Harvard / F&M Bank rezoning case, the hear about the legal process ahead, and to consider what can be done politically to address the way homeowners have been mistreated, not only in this case, but in countless zoning cases over the years.

Among the crowd were two current councilors (Medlock and Christiansen), two former councilors (Turner and Huston), and several potential candidates for council, including John Eagleton, who will be running for District 7, whether Randy Sullivan runs again or not, and Roscoe Turner, who will be running to recapture District 3 from David Patrick.

It was said several times that the anger over this issue is not about losing a zoning case, disappointing as that was, but over the illegal lengths to which officials went in order to disqualify the neighborhood's protest, stripping them of an important legal protection against arbitrary rezoning. I'm sure the councilors who supported this and the Mayor felt that the anger would soon subside and the issue would be forgotten. The fundamental unfairness of the process, and the unwillingness of most of the councilors and the Mayor to stand up for fairness won't soon be forgotten.

A leader from the 71st & Harvard area made one of the best points of the evening -- if this is the way zoning laws are enforced, we'd be better off without them. They provide only the illusion of protection to property owners.

I spoke for a few minutes about the political situation. There's no point in having rules unless you have honest, fair, and just rulers to enforce them. We need councilors who won't pass the buck. I called attention to the Chamber's infill report, and their radical plan to remake Midtown Tulsa, without regard for the people who have already invested in homes and businesses in their targeted areas. Zoning and planning were the stealth issues in the 2002 council campaign, with councilors and candidates targeted for defeat for being concerned with the impact of zoning changes on neighborhoods. In 2004 we can make these issues front and center. I warned the audience to expect fair and honest candidates to be trashed by the Whirled -- expect it and take it with a grain of salt. The Whirled will trash these people because of their positions on development and neighborhoods, but the Whirled will find was to marginalize them without raising these issues. I called for neighborhood leaders to find good candidates and support them with money and time.

After I finished and headed back to my seat, someone argued that the real problem is not with the Council, but with the TMAPC, and we need to work with the Council to bring about reform. I replied that if the current bunch undertakes reform we won't be happy with the results, and that we need to clean house first.

Councilor Medlock spoke of efforts to clarify the ambiguities in the zoning protest process. He was hopeful that even councilors who opposed the neighborhoods on this issue would support a modest reform to set out more clearly the standard a protest must meet. Medlock was praised by several of the speakers for his leadership on this issue.

I'm told that at the end of the meeting there was great support for moving ahead with legal action against the City and for taking political action. Several people commented about how hopeful the meeting made them feel. Me too.

Neighborhood leaders from across the city are meeting tonight (November 17), 7 p.m. at the Embers Restaurant, 81st & Harvard. The meeting is to discuss the 71st & Harvard rezoning case. Attorney Louis Bullock, who may be handling a lawsuit on behalf of the neighborhood, will be present. We'll also be talking about political strategy -- how to replace the buck-passing councilors who approved this with more fair and thoughtful Tulsans on the City Council.

Even if you aren't particularly interested in the 71st & Harvard case, the issues at stake -- how we do planning and zoning in Tulsa -- affects homeowners in every part of the city. You can make a difference. Please join us tonight.

On Thursday Mayor Bill LaFortune approved the rezoning of 71st & Harvard for F&M Bank. Although the Mayor was in town Thursday, his deputy Steve Sewell signed the ordinance in his stead. One City Hall observer who contacted me noted that there's an emerging pattern of the Mayor delegating the approval of controversial items -- the Mayor had Sewell sign off on giving a big chunk of taxpayer money to the Tulsa Metro Chamber for "economic development" activities during the Vision 2025 campaign, bypassing the Economic Development Commission.

Whether that's true or not, both the Mayor and the majority on the Council have engaged in buck-passing on this issue. Councilor Tom Baker told a gathering of neighborhood leaders that it wasn't his place to question the judgment of the City Attorney's office and INCOG planning staff. And now the Mayor is saying it's not his place to scrutinize the decision made by the City Council.

To which I say, why the heck did you bother running for office? We elect a City Council to act in part as a check on the unelected bureaucracy and on the Mayor's office. Councilor Baker, did you think that being a City Councilor was just a nice way to get some supplemental retirement income and health coverage for your declining years? Do you resent spending time studying and debating these important issues? Is that why you voted to cut off debate before any significant discussion had taken place?

And Mr. Mayor, where does the buck stop in your administration? Yes, it would be unprecedented for a Mayor to veto a zoning ordinance, but given the unprecedented amount of controversy, didn't you owe your constituents the courtesy of examining the issue independently? Shouldn't you be looking into questionable behavior by your legal department, which threw out a lawful protest petition? And with the threat of a major lawsuit looming, shouldn't you at least give the protestors a hearing? And if you're going to approve it, why not sign the thing yourself?

The property owners protesting the rezoning are planning an appeal, not only for their case but for the sake of homeowners across the City who have been mistreated time and again by the zoning process. Neighborhood leaders from across the city are invited to attend a meeting this Monday night, 7 p.m. at the Embers Restaurant, 81st & Harvard. Attorney Louis Bullock, who may be taking the case for the neighborhood, will be present. The meeting will not only cover the legal process, but will focus on political strategy, because the legal problem could have been avoided with more fair and thoughtful Tulsans on the City Council.

Too many of our councilors seem to be time-servers and buck-passers: Their mantra is "Don't rock the boat, do what the big shots tell us to do, don't think any original thoughts." Follow that path, and they can get the campaign contributions to keep drawing salary and benefits without having to break a sweat or strain the brain. We need to re-elect hardworking thoughtful councilors like Medlock, Roop, and Christiansen, and elect more like them to replace the councilors who just want to be bumps on a log.

Once again Councilors Joe Williams, David Patrick, Tom Baker, Art Justis, and Randy Sullivan cast a vote against fairness in the zoning process. That makes four votes each against fairness and for special interests for Patrick, Baker, Justis, and Sullivan, in just two council meetings. (Unlike the others, Williams voted to allow the debate a week ago to proceed.)

This Thursday night the Council again voted 5-4 on the second (and final) reading of the zoning map amendments for 71st and Harvard, allowing a bank and office park on land that has been for many years zoned residential and designated residential on the Comprehensive Plan. All this over the objections and formal protest of nearby residents.

I've been told that Councilor Williams was reconsidering his vote, but at the last minute, after strolling into the meeting with Randy Sullivan, he reverted to his particular plans. Once upon a time, he was a reliable vote for fairness in zoning matters. To see him acquiesce so readily to this sham of a process makes some wonder what is motivating him these days.

Now the Mayor will get the zoning amendment and has 15 working days to veto it or sign it. (The law will go into effect unless he acts to veto it.) He admits that he hasn't fully studied the issue, and has said that he wants to stay out of this, but perhaps with some encouragement he will change his mind. Please contact the Mayor (mayorlafortune@ci.tulsa.ok.us) and encourage him to examine the case carefully and put Tulsa city government on the right side in this dispute. Even though it will probably go to court either way, the Mayor's decision will establish which side will have the burden of proof and will bear most of the cost.

There are several amusing ironies surrounding the Council's approval last Thursday of rezoning for 71st & Harvard. Tom Baker, Councilor for District 4, was one of the staunchest supporters for the rezoning, voting the wrong way three times: to suppress debate, to reject the petition from neighboring property owners, and to approve the rezoning itself, despite its violation of the Comprehensive Plan.

Two days later Baker held a five-hour-long district planning session for selected neighborhood presidents. One wonders at the point of investing time developing a plan and providing neighborhood input to a public official who has only 36 hours earlier voted to ignore an existing plan and ignore organized, overwhelming neighborhood input.

Dear Mayor LaFortune,

Tuesday morning on 1170 KFAQ, Michael DelGiorno asked you if you would consider vetoing the zoning amendment sought by F&M Bank at 71st & Harvard. You paraphrased his question as asking if you would repeal the amendment, which was approved by a 5-4 vote of the City Council last Thursday. It will not become law without your approval. You said that this was a decision for the professional planners, the planning commission, and the Council, not for you as Mayor. While I appreciate your deference to the legislative branch of city government, I am writing to remind you that you have the power to veto this ill-advised amendment to our zoning ordinance, and to persuade you that it would be in the best interest of the city and of your administration to do so. By vetoing the amendment you would demonstrate your administration's commitment to fairness -- everyone plays by the same set of rules.

Hiding the agenda

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I was asked whether a Tulsa Metro Chamber committee report on infill development (posted here, comments here) was formally adopted by the Chamber or by any governmental body. I don't know that it has or hasn't, but in a way, it doesn't matter, because the ideas contained in it are already guiding the practice of land use regulation in Tulsa, in a piecemeal, evolutionary fashion, while its more radical concepts are on the wishlist of many influential people and institutions.

When I ran for City Council in 2002, I submitted to an interview by David Averill and Julie DelCour of the Tulsa Whirled Editorial Board. Given my opposition to "It's Tulsa's Time", I figured a new downtown arena would be the dominant topic. Instead, they were most interested in my positions on three issues. First, they wanted to know my position on abortion. I told them I am pro-life, and that I believe that we have an obligation to protect innocent, defenseless human life. They told me not to worry and that the Whirled sometimes endorses "anti-choice" candidates.

The second key issue was whether I approved of the use of government condemnation to "assemble" land for private redevelopment. Clearly they supported the notion. I told them I felt it was an abuse of the power of eminent domain. And they wanted to know where I stood on the six-laning of Riverside Drive, a pet project for them -- I oppose it because of the effect on the park and neighborhood, and said so.

An earlier entry contains a report on infill development by a Metro Tulsa Chamber committee. Here's how it fits into the bigger picture.

Infill development is often controversial, because it involves changing the use or size or appearance of an already-developed area. It puts at risk the investment made by neighborhing property owners -- good infill can enhance property values, bad infill can destroy them.

The bottom line for some developers is this: We should be able to build anything we want, tear down anything we want, anywhere we want. We want government to clear away any obstacles that stand in our way, including existing zoning laws. If a a property owner won't sell us property we want to redevelop, we expect government to declare the property as blighted, seize the land (paying "compensation" or course), and sell it to us. This document says that this is the only way our city can move forward economically, the only way Tulsa can halt the decline of retail in Tulsa caused by new retail development in the suburbs, the only way Tulsa can halt the decline of sales tax revenues.

Neighborhoods are unfairly identified as an obstacle in this document, a barrier to new retail and residential development in Midtown. Government is identified as a tool to be used, gearing deparments, boards, and commissions to "fulfill the mission". To gain the cooperation of the citizens, they must "become terrified of continuing the status quo".

Chamber wants to remake Midtown


All of the talk about "vision" over the last year was focused on building publicly-funded capital improvements, but a real vision should deal with the big picture -- what do we want Tulsa to look like, what do we want our own neighborhood to be like, and what do we need to do now to achieve that goal. Can Tulsa once again have a fair claim to the title "America's Most Beautiful City", a title we claimed in the 1950's? How we handle land-use regulation and planning today will determine if that goal will be achievable 20 or 30 years from now. It's a topic that deserves the attention of every concerned citizen.

Last week's 71st & Harvard zoning vote was just one skirmish in a decades-long struggle, largely conducted behind the scenes, between competing visions of the future development of Tulsa. Only one side appreciates the reality of the struggle and seeks to wage the war in a coherent, organized, and well-financed fashion, even as they seek to keep the public from noticing that the war is underway. The other side has a few people with an appreciation for the big picture, but most of the warriors show up for their local battle, then disperse once the battle is over, sometimes achieving a tactical victory, but never strategically positioned to acheive the objective.

A document has recently surfaced revealing the vision of politically-connected developers and the Chamber of Commerce and their "battle plan" to achieve their aims. Last week I was given a copy of a report generated back in January 2003 by a committee of the Tulsa Metro Chamber regarding infill development. "Infill development" means redeveloping already developed areas, or developing undeveloped spots in the midst of existing development. It contrasts with the kind of development that has characterized Tulsa for since WW II -- converting farmland into subdivisions and shopping centers.

Infill development is often controversial, because it involves changing the use or size or appearance of an already-developed area. It puts at risk the investment made by neighborhing property owners -- good infill can enhance property values, bad infill can destroy them.

I'll save extended commentary for a separate entry. Here are some key points that the committee makes in its report -- my paraphrase, but their ideas.

* There's a crisis because the suburbs now have retail, and suburbanites don't have to come into Tulsa to do their shopping. Sales tax revenues in Tulsa may not recover when the economy does. This threatens our city's ability to provide basic services.

* We need to build new attractions, and all of them should be in downtown Tulsa. We think housing downtown is a silly idea. No one wants to live there.

* Neighborhood empowerment and historic preservation zoning is an obstacle to achieving our aims.

* Commercial zones in midtown are too narrow for us to build cookie-cutter suburban stores in Midtown neighborhoods (and we don't know how to build anything else). So we should widen these zones and designate them specifically as redevelopment targets.

* We need more high rises, so we should "assemble" much of Brookside between Riverside and Peoria (through government condemnation) to allow high rises to be built there.

* We need to scare the voters into going along with this approach.

The text of the report is linked below, in the extended part of this entry. I plan to post the actual image of the report, including appendices -- when I do, I will link it from here. Please read it through, and if you don't like the vision it outlines, get involved in electing councilors who will support a better, inclusive vision that will preserve and enhance our city's beauty.

About this Archive

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

Tulsa Zoning: October 2003 is the previous archive.

Tulsa Zoning: December 2003 is the next archive.

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