If you read the cover story from last week's issue, "Re-Mapping Tulsa", you know that citywide planning workshops will be held this coming Monday and Tuesday, September 22 and 23. These workshops are the early stages of PLANiTULSA, the process for developing Tulsa's first comprehensive plan in a generation.
Public interest and enthusiasm are running high. As of last Friday (Sept. 12), more than 500 Tulsans had signed up to participate. They're on track to top the 1,100 that participated in Mayor Bill LaFortune's 2002 Vision Summit. Already, the City of Tulsa Planning Department is looking at holding a third workshop, possibly in October, to accommodate the overflow.
(If you haven't signed up yet, visit planitulsa.org and fill out the online registration, or phone the PLANiTULSA office at 576-5684.)
But, inexplicably, not everyone is excited about a new comprehensive plan for the city. Some people believe PLANiTULSA is an early stage of the implementation of a United Nations-driven, globalist, socialist agenda to deprive our nation of its sovereignty and Tulsans of their liberty and property.
This last weekend, an organization called OK-SAFE held a behind-closed-doors briefing for government officials and conservative grassroots activists to educate them about the dangers of "New Urbanism," "sustainable development," and "smart growth."
Michael Shaw, an activist from Santa Cruz, Calif., and Randy Bright, a local architect specializing in churches, were the main speakers at the event, which was not publicized and not open to the general public.
OK-SAFE -- Oklahomans for Sovereignty and Free Enterprise -- began as an organization concerned with illegal immigration, the NAFTA Superhighway (aka the Trans-Texas Corridor), and efforts to create an economic, monetary, and, ultimately, a political union of the United States, Mexico, and Canada.
They see political leaders in both parties moving the US down the same path that European nations started down half a century ago, starting with a veneer of free trade, but leading to an unelected, unaccountable body of bureaucrats dictating everything from the permissible size of bananas to school curricula to the kinds of social entitlement programs a country has to offer.
They worry about the erosion of property rights and the misuse of eminent domain for the benefit of for-profit companies who build and operate toll roads. They see the big road construction lobby in Oklahoma trying to lay the legal groundwork for similar "public private partnerships" here.
I share those concerns. As an amateur student of British politics, I've watched prime ministers of both parties sign away the ancient rights of people and parliament in the name of "ever closer union" with Europe. I don't want to see that happen here.
I agree that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. But it undermines the cause of liberty for its advocates to indulge in baseless alarmism.
As I listened to Bright and several callers on Bruce Delay's Sept. 13 talk show on 1170 KFAQ, I heard a couple of recurring fallacies.
(You can listen to the show for yourself. Visit podcast.1170kfaq.com, click the "Weekend Shows" tab, and scroll down.)
The first is one common to conspiracy theories. If nefarious organization A uses the phrase X, and organization B uses the same phrase, then B not only subscribes to A's definition of X, they are in league with A and subservient to A's hidden agenda.
In this case, because the United Nations issued a document, Agenda 21, which calls for sustainable development, and because New Urbanists believe that their approach to city planning results in development that is more sustainable--less demanding on resources--than the typical American post-World War II development pattern, therefore (according to this fallacious line of reasoning) New Urbanists are advancing a socialist, globalist agenda to take away our cars and deprive us, as one OK-SAFE leader put it, "of our God-given right to develop our land any way we want."
Just because someone uses the same term as a United Nations document doesn't mean that person subscribes to everything the UN means by that term or submits to UN authority over local planning.
You don't have to be a treasonous Commie or a global-warming zealot to be concerned about sustainability. The reality is that the US is competing with rapidly developing nations like India and China for a dwindling supply of fossil fuels. Our existing land-use regulations were designed in a period of fossil fuel abundance, and they have resulted in a city where every errand requires a trip in the car. Walking isn't an option. Most families bear the increasing costs of owning and operating one car for every driving-age member of the household.
When you have a zoning code and a comprehensive plan that inhibits new, compact, walkable development and more cost effective use of existing development, a free-market advocate might reasonably see the value in revising it to allow more freedom for market forces to work.
That leads me to the second fallacy coming from the OK-SAFE folks: The OK-SAFE criticism of PLANiTULSA gives the impression that we currently enjoy untrammeled, unregulated property rights, that our development pattern is the purely the result of market forces, and that this new comprehensive plan is an unprecedented threat to our God-given right to develop our property as we see fit.
If you believe that our current system is one of maximum freedom, go to the INCOG.org website and read our zoning code--Title 42 of Tulsa Revised Ordinances. Take a look at section 402.B, the restrictions on home occupations and other "accessory uses" allowed in a residential district.
If you want to start a business in your home, it has to be completely hidden from your neighbors. Some home occupations are absolutely prohibited--fixing cars, for example.
You can't sell merchandise or even allow your customers to come to your home to pick up items they bought over the web. You can't put up a sign advertising your business. You can tutor, but only one student at a time. You can't employ in your home business anyone who is not a member of your family.
Want to rent out a spare room? You can't post a sign to advertise its availability.
Rather than having your mother-in-law come live in your house, you hit upon the idea of building a small cottage in your backyard, where she can be close, but she can enjoy some independence, and you can enjoy a bit of space. Too bad our existing zoning code won't let you do it.
How Unfree Have We Become?
Beyond the impact of regulations, consider the effect of subsidies. Post-war federal home loan guarantees favored new home construction over ownership of existing homes. Federally-funded interstates bulldozed or blighted older central-city neighborhoods and fueled new development further from the center.
Under urban renewal, generously funded by the federal government, cities displaced small businesses, homeowners, and renters to make way for grand new developments, such as Tulsa's Williams Center, a dismal urban planning failure.
At some point, Tulsa stopped requiring developers to fund the expansion of infrastructure to serve their new developments. Instead, this cost has been shifted from the developer to taxpayers and utility ratepayers. There's nothing free-market about that practice.
Our dominant pattern of development--commercial at major intersections, single-family residential in between, with multifamily and office buffering between the two--was dictated by a comprehensive plan issued in 1957 and is enforced by our zoning code.
In fact, our existing approach to land-use planning and regulation has its roots in the socialist conceit that scientific central planning was superior to the messy workings of the free market.
A centrally planned and zoned community, it was thought, would be healthier and more efficient than a city that evolved one building at a time. It might mean driving people from their homes and bulldozing their neighborhoods, but that was the price of progress, they said.
While the central planners were undeveloping America's cities, some observers noticed that the city neighborhoods that the planners called chaotic and overcrowded, the areas that developed before the advent of modern zoning and planning theory, were in fact the liveliest and healthiest parts of the city.
Observations like those recorded by Jane Jacobs in her 1960 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, served as the foundation of a new appreciation of traditional city neighborhoods.
That appreciation led to the idea of building new places that followed the pattern of traditional, pre-zoning city neighborhoods. The movement acquired the name New Urbanism.
It should be emphasized that the PLANiTULSA process doesn't require a result that includes New Urbanism or sustainable development or smart growth. Tulsans may opt to continue along the same path that we've been following.
Tulsa has a comprehensive plan and a zoning code, and one way or another we'll continue to plan and regulate land use. What I do with my land has an impact on my neighbors. How we accommodate new growth has an impact on the taxes we pay to support that new growth with water and sewer lines, streets, and police and fire protection.
Some of the critics I heard on the radio worry that the workshop process is a giant exercise in mind control. They are suspicious of any process that doesn't strictly follow Robert's Rules of Order.
At the end of the process, the City Council will undertake a formal process to consider a new comprehensive plan. The Council will have public hearings, and they'll be able to adopt the plan as presented, amend it, or reject it outright.
But before we get to the point of formal debate and adoption, there has to be a way to collect and correlate the ideas of thousands of Tulsans on the complex topic of how we accommodate population and job growth. No method is perfect, but the workshops are a good starting point.
What will come out of these workshops and nine small-area planning workshops at the beginning of 2009 are a set of alternative growth scenarios which will be presented to the public. One way to alleviate concerns about the openness of the process would be to put those options before the voters during the 2009 city elections, rather than depending upon Internet polls or postcards to assess public preferences.
How can the planning team ease the worries of the PLANiTULSA skeptics?
Some means ought to be found to allow dissenters to present a "minority report"--an alternative comprehensive plan that the City Council would consider alongside the one being developed by Fregonese Associates under contract to the City.
The Fregonese team deserves some blame for opening the door to accusations of secrecy. They haven't been as diligent as they had promised in making all data available on the PLANiTULSA website. It's been well over a month since the complete results of the in-depth interviews and survey were supposed to have been released.
My advice to the OK-SAFE folks: First, get involved in the process. Sign up for the workshops at planitulsa.org, and participate in good faith. Second, follow the process closely, and continue to demand full disclosure.
Third, take away the option of condemnation. Make sure we elect city councilors and a mayor who will oppose the use of eminent domain for private redevelopment. It's already against the Oklahoma Constitution, but you need public officials (including district judges) who won't try to skirt the Constitution, for example, by mislabeling a neighborhood as "blighted."
It's right to be skeptical of planning fads, of claims that New Urbanism--or any other land-use planning approach--will be a cure-all. It's right to reject heavy-handed central planning, as long as you realize that some amount of planning is required to provide services and arbitrate between the desires and demands of hundreds of thousands of people living in close proximity to one another.
Tulsa will have some form of land-use planning. If you care about what form that planning takes, get involved and stay involved in the PLANiTULSA process.
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