All the talking is just about over, and the action is about to start. Last Thursday night, the City Council voted unanimously to set a March 22nd date for a public hearing on whether the City of Tulsa should annex the Tulsa County Fairgrounds (alias Expo Square) into the city limits.
The call for a public hearing is part of a state-mandated process for annexation, including notice to all landowners within the proposed annexation area and the owners of all adjacent parcels. Following the hearing, an affirmative vote of the City Council and the signature of the Mayor is all that is needed to annex the land.
Because the three-eighths of a square mile is an enclave completely surrounded by the City of Tulsa, the consent of the landowner (in this case, the Tulsa County Board of Commissioners) is not required.
At last Thursday's meeting, opponents of annexation made their case as forcefully as they could, but their arguments were just as forcefully taken apart by questions from some of the city councilors, particularly John Eagleton, Roscoe Turner, and Jack Henderson.
Speakers against annexation included County Commissioners Randi Miller and Fred Perry, Expo Square CEO Rick Bjorklund, and anti-tax activist Dan Hicks.
Eagleton, a trial attorney, drew upon his courtroom experience to ask some polite but pointed questions of each of the speakers. In particular, he challenged Perry on his earlier statements that the City doesn't pay anything toward the upkeep of the jail, an argument that was made to counter the fact that Expo Square benefits from city infrastructure surrounding it without providing revenue for the upkeep of that infrastructure.
Eagleton pointed out that by contract, the City provides the County with an evidence room -- the Tulsa Police Department provides security for evidence pertaining to state cases originating in the City of Tulsa -- holding cells adjacent to the County Courthouse, the Adult Detention Center, and a facility next to the county's juvenile detention center.
In exchange for the rent-free use of these facilities, the City can use the county jail to house a daily average of 116 prisoners who are being held on municipal charges. If the average count of municipal prisoners slips below that number, the City gets no additional consideration from the County, but if the count rises above that number, the City pays additional money to the County.
In response, Perry had to acknowledge that those earlier comments were based on incomplete information. If I were Perry, I'd reconsider the amount of trust I should repose in whoever fed me such embarrassingly inaccurate information.
While our two new County Commissioners are good, honest, and diligent men, they are necessarily dependent on a staff team that was built by the retired King of Tulsa County, former Commissioner Bob Dick. Such a team would be geared toward doing county business Dick's way, a way that Tulsa County voters chose to end by electing Perry and his colleague John Smaligo.
The new commissioners should consider the possibility that hidden agendas are at work and that the holdover staffers may not be committed to supporting the new commissioners' policy goals or even to upholding their best interests as politicians. They could stand to bring in some people they trust to take a fresh look at county government operations.
Later in the meeting, Joe Wanenmacher, who heads up the "world's largest gun show" that fills the Expo Building twice a year, voiced his concerns about the impact on his show of imposing the city's 3 percent sales tax. In light of that, it's interesting that he doesn't mention the lower sales tax at all in promoting his show.
Instead, his show's website (tulsaarmsshow.com) touts the number of dealers (facilitated by the 11-acre size of the Expo Building, unequaled in the region), which makes it easier for collectors to find what they're looking for and to comparison-shop; Oklahoma's lack of "unusual (or restrictive) gun laws; availability of parking and quality of facilities; high attendance numbers; and the presence of 24-hour armed guards.
Note that as an Expo Square tenant, holding a private event, Wanenmacher is providing his own security. That undermines the claim that, if the Fairgrounds is annexed, the Tulsa Police Department would have to provide security for the Tulsa State Fair.
While the police would have to respond to reports of crime or disturbance at the Fair, the entity that owns and operates the Fair would be responsible for providing whatever security is needed to keep its customers safe and comfortable, same as any other business.
And for all their qualms about the city sales tax rate, the county commissioners' predecessors didn't have any problem imposing their own extra taxes on sales at Expo Square: one-fourth cent for jail operations, one-sixth cent for "Four to Fix the County," six-tenths cent for Vision 2025.
In 1999, the County Commission imposed a new "use tax" to fund Fairgrounds improvements.
Expo Square exhibitors and tenants aren't exempt from this tax. When Vision 2025 was passed, the county increased its use tax rate to match the higher sales tax rate.
While the focus has been on the fiscal reasons for and against annexation, the dismantling of Bell's Amusement Park dramatizes another reason just as critical for the health of midtown Tulsa neighborhoods.
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. While the forced departure of Bell's is a welcome development for nearby neighbors, they can't know yet whether the new use for the land, which will be chosen by the TCPFA, will be more or less of a nuisance.
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.
As long as Expo Square is outside the city limits, there is no check on what uses might be permitted. The TCPFA (made up of the three county commissioners and two other members, appointed by the commissioners) would approve any lease.
If a zoning variance or special exception is required, it would be decided by the County Board of Adjustment (appointed by the county commissioners). If a zoning change is required for the new use, it would be decided by the County Commission.
While we have reason to hope that Expo Square will be a better neighbor under the leadership of the new county commissioners, they won't be there forever.
Just as county-owned and operated LaFortune Park, and the county jail and county courthouse are subject to the laws of the City of Tulsa, just as county-owned and operated Haikey Creek Park is subject to the laws of the City of Broken Arrow, this developed parcel, surrounded by dense development, ought to be subject to the City of Tulsa's laws, the same laws that apply on the other side of 15th, 21st, Louisville, and Yale.
It's only fair.
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