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October 23, 2018, 11:55:51 am
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Author Topic: Reform Proposals for Rezoning and Development  (Read 2161 times)
Civic Leader
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« on: March 01, 2006, 09:29:24 pm »

I'd be interested in thoughts on the following -especially the proposals at the end.  Sorry for the length, but the background is important to establish context of why some residents have so much difficulty with development and why it's in everyone's interest to make them feel like part of the process.

One of the ways we can accomplish the twin goals of encouraging infill development in Tulsa and protecting our neighborhoods is to ensure the free and transparent flow of information among developers, residents and City government.  Without full and advance notice and a real and enforceable say in the zoning process, residents will become   cynical and seek to block even the most reasonable projects.  Without incentives and, where necessary, mandates to compromise, developers will ignore residents’ concerns and push their projects through City Hall.  The Charter amendment allowing residents to petition against development projects is an obvious step in the right direction.  But further action is necessary and should be considered after these elections.  

In Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Arthur Dent finds that his house is about to be destroyed to make way for a highway.  Dismissing Dent’s obligations, the construction worker informs Dent that he should have been aware to the plans since they had been on file at a government office for years.  Dent soon discovers that his troubles are just beginning, as the Earth is about to be demolished to make way for a supergalactic superhighway - the plans for which have been on file at a galactic file room for years.  This highly satirical look at the impact of an impersonal bureaucracy on the individual contains lessons for the interaction of Tulsa's government with its citizens.  Ordinary people should not have to face the trials and tribulations of Arthur Dent in order to avoid having their lives bulldozed by City projects and plans developed without their considered input.  

Dent is clearly cynical of his government, more so after his house and planet are destroyed.  Like Dent, Tulsa’s citizens may become cynical if they are excluded from planning that affects them.  They will withhold support for worthwhile projects if they perceive secrecy and corruption in the government, even if there is none. For example, back when our country and the Treasury were founded, the government’s failure to establish mechanisms to inform (primarily its southern) citizens about key government treasury actions helped to open a gulf between north and south, merchant and farmer.  Those who lacked the time and means to fully understand governmental actions perceived the acts as specifically designed to harm them.  The individual's apparent lack of government information accessible only by a few well-connected people created the perception of extreme unfairness and split the country and eventually led to civil war.      

In the City of Tulsa today, the individual homeowner often feels the same as the 18th Century farmers in the South.  Commentators write about the secretive way City officials work with developers to encourage development within Tulsa.  Although this development is needed, the way it is accomplished appears to ignore the legitimate concerns of homeowners who will be profoundly affected by devaluation of property, traffic, fewer places for their children to play, clutter and sprawl.  

When the projects appear before the City zoning authorities, interested homeowners can't be faulted for feeling at a disadvantage.  First, they have to negotiate the bewildering array of city government organs that have hearings on the matters.  Then, they must understand the laws, ordinances and rules that apply, as well as the plans, studies and other documents that the zoning authorities follow when they address these issues.  Finally, they must know how to utilize the City instrumentalities such as engineering, traffic control, etc., necessary to prove their arguments.  The homeowner has to do all of this along with working a day job, raising a family and otherwise contributing to the community.  By contrast, the developer gets paid for his/her work and easily incorporates legal and other fees necessary to understand and master these impediments and obtain access to important policymakers.  It is easy to understand why citizens instinctively believe that "new development" is nothing more than code word for allowing those "in the know" to get rich at the expense of those who weren't paying attention.

Even small developers have trouble operating under the Byzantine, influence-ridden zoning and property laws.  The current zoning system allows large, well-connected developers to build what they want, while making it difficult for smaller developers that might build more neighborhood-friendly developments to do the same.  This hurts the City twice – by allowing large developers to disregard neighborhood interests and depriving neighborhoods of more compatible developments.

History has shown that the system doesn't have to be this stacked against the homeowner and small developer.  While free trade and private property have proven to be crucial underpinnings of the U.S. economy, the free flow of market and government information is crucial to the economy and, more importantly, the citizens' trust in the government.  It is possible to encourage economic development while protecting those that are less savvy and well-connected.

The next Mayor and City Council of Tulsa would do well to recognize this principle.  It is very important to many of us that midtown and downtown Tulsa develop economically.  We want to encourage "infill" but we want the development to enhance, not degrade our property value and quality of life.  While City officials scamper to accept development proposals because they believe it is Tulsa's only chance to attract development, they forget the people who live in the area being developed, mortgage the City's future and earn the distrust of the populace.  Moreover, the development process is slowed by litigation and political bickering.

The City can do better.  Instead of building the City through what seems like closed-door scheming and horse trading with developers, City government should include residents in a “can-do” cooperative process that will both facilitate development and protect the legitimate interests of homeowners.  Rather than inhibit new development through bureaucratic hurdles and red tape, the City should develop mechanisms to incent homeowners to encourage reasonable development and developers to seek out the concerns of homeowners.  Most importantly, the City must accomplish rezoning, development and infill in a manner that is fully transparent and fair to everyone, even those that lack the time, money or ability to participate and follow City proceedings.

Tulsa's rezoning processes require reform to restore trust in government and allow welcome development to proceed at a faster pace.  The City Charter amendment providing neighborhoods a fair chance to petition against and prevent major rezoning projects is a good first step.  After this amendment is adopted, however, Tulsa should consider adopting the following proposals, which, together, should improve the zoning process and provide Tulsans with the ability to work together to build a better Tulsa.

(1)   Clear Notice.  The City should post all proposed zoning changes in a dedicated portion of the Tulsa World (or an alternative newspaper) and on the City's website, and on each corner of the property proposed to be rezoned.  The newspaper and website postings should show new zoning applications and provide information about how homeowners can learn more information about the project and the surrounding areas.
(2)   Neighborhood Accountability.  Neighborhoods should be required to register three residential contact people, their telephone numbers and email addresses (if available) to interface with developers and the City in rezoning cases.  Notices should go to these three people for a rezoning project in the applicable neighborhood, as well as to those currently being notified.  For the downtown area, notice should go to one representative of each surrounding neighborhood until there is a “downtown neighborhood”.
(3)   Cooperation and Mediation.  Before hearing a rezoning request on property adjoining residential land, the City should require the requesting party to meet with interested residential property owners and attempt to meet their concerns.  City or private mediators, acceptable to both parties, should be made available at the request of either party.  The City mediator should be a member of the TMAPC or another party acceptable to both sides, and should be responsible for finding a way for both developers and neighborhoods to meet their respective, reasonable goals.  The mediator should be invited to speak at City hearings addressing the zoning request and his/her views should be given substantial weight.  
(4)   Expedited Process.  If the developer and the neighborhood representatives reach an agreement on the proposed development, the developer should be able to go through an expedited process to approve the project.
(5)   Neighborhood Assistance.  The city should hire a consumer/neighborhood advocate-attorney that can assist neighborhoods, which will help expedite the rezoning process and City meetings addressing new development.
(6)   Quality Assurance.  Final zoning and platting language should be published and remain out for public comments for two weeks before they are to go into effect.  The public should have the right to submit comments solely on the issue of whether the final language comports with what was decided by the City Council and city organs.  Any comments in that regard would require an additional hearing to ensure that the final language and proposal are correct.  

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