A recent call by the Tulsa Metro Chamber to have the Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission lengthen the public comment period for the PLANiTULSA recommendations placed the organization at odds with many supporters of the plan, who feared the request was designed to give the chamber time to kill key provisions of the document.
Planning commissioners responded by voting last week to reopen public comment on the issue on April 28 after they have completed their review process and made modifications to the plan. Whether that move was enough to satisfy chamber officials was unclear, but it seemed to ease the concerns of many of those who feared the sought-after delay would be used to slow the plan's approval process to a crawl.
On Feb. 23, the TMAPC began holding public hearings on the PLANiTULSA recommendations, the process by which the city's comprehensive plan is being updated for the first time in 30 years. A chamber official appeared at the March 10 meeting and asked commissioners to delay taking action on the plan for 60 days to give the chamber more time to review the document.
That request alarmed many supporters of the plan, who feared the chamber -- along with members of the developers and home builders community -- were targeting for removal of certain provisions of the document they viewed as unfriendly.
Don Walker, the Arvest Bank president and CEO who serves as chairman of the chamber, noted the day after last week's meeting that the chamber had asked for a two-month window in which to further review the document -- a request the commission did not grant.
"And (April 28) is only 30 days away," he said. "But we will work with them and hopefully give them our input."
Walker said the ramifications of the plan require additional scrutiny.
"There have been some great meetings and a reasonable amount of public input, but until you get down to the final draft, and all the t's are crossed and the i's are dotted, it's going to need more study," he said.
The decision to reopen public comment later this month was welcomed by at least one supporter of the plan.
"I appreciate it," said local political observer Michael Bates, who has followed the issue closely on his blog at HYPERLINK "http://www.batesline.com"www.batesline.com and who spoke in favor of adoption of the plan at the March 10 meeting. "I think it was done to make sure the process can move forward with public support, not to make the chamber happy."
Planning Commission Chairwoman Michelle Cantrell opened the third public hearing on the plan last week by saying the consultant hired by the city to work on the plan, Fregonese Associates of Portland, Ore., had recommended that the TMAPC hold another public hearing after revisions were made by commissioners. At the end of the hearing, the commission voted unanimously to do just that.
"I want to make it clear we are not rushing this procedure, but we are not slowing it down, either," Cantrell said. "We are proceeding at the best pace we can."
Most of the objections to the plan expressed in the three public hearings have centered on the document's use of small area plans and how they would be applied. Opponents seem concerned that they would unfairly restrict development, while supporters argue they are necessary to protect residents of older neighborhoods.
Planning Commissioner Elizabeth Wright said she believes there has been a lot of misunderstanding about what the plan actually calls for, and she said that has inflamed the process. She said the commission never intended for anyone to have the impression there would be no other chances for input.
"That was perhaps a misinterpretation on their part that they would not have the opportunity to speak again," she said. "I think it's been defused because of what has been decided regarding the extension of time."
She acknowledged being somewhat perplexed by the chamber's request.
"The officers of the chamber have been involved with the PLANiTULSA process from the get-go," she said. "So their request for more time seems rather odd, without merit or substance."
The move to allow public comment on the plan after the Planning Commission's revisions was something Bates essentially had pushed for in a blog entry dated Feb. 22. He believes the chamber's role in the commission's decision last week was minimal.
"What happened (March 23) had very little to do with the chamber," he said. "It was pretty clear from the March 10 meeting when the chamber's new government official made the request that the Planning Commission was unimpressed. It came across looking like 'The dog ate my homework.' (Planning Commissioners) are following their own timetable."
Gwendolyn Caldwell, the chamber's vice president of government affairs, said at last week's meeting her organization was pleased that the commission had agreed to provide additional time for input. But Bates believes that was mostly posturing.
"Their response was to take credit for the change in schedule: 'See, this was our doing, we still have influence,'" he said, expressing his belief that the chamber is primarily interested in having itself formally written into the plan. "But they've been discredited, and their influence is fading. They haven't been good stewards of the public trust, and this is sort of their last gasp."
This Island, PLANiTULSA
Bates and developer Jamie Jamieson were two of the most vocal opponents of the chamber's request in the days leading up to the March 23 meeting. In a widely circulated letter to a fellow neighborhood activist on March 11, Jamieson didn't mince words when it came to his interpretation of what the organization and some of the interests it represents were trying to accomplish.
"It's starkly clear that the homebuilders, realtors and the Chamber, all of whom showed up to complain yesterday, are mounting a serious effort to torpedo key features of PlaniTulsa," he wrote. "They give the impression of having lain in wait for two years. It looks as if the strategy is to drag out, obfuscate, confuse, conflate, alienate, discredit and ultimately emasculate the Plan to suit a myopic view of their own interests, at the expense of Tulsa and Tulsans."
Walker flatly denied those assertions.
"From my perspective, that's absolutely not true," he said earlier in March. "I think if we waited 30 years (to update the comprehensive plan) that another 60 days of focus on some of the detail is valuable. I do not want to stop PLANiTULSA, nor does the chamber want to stop it.
"I would say as a businessman, one who has built 28 facilities in the Tulsa region, we love the idea of some modifications," he said. "But I will tell you from personal experience if the language is either too specific or sometimes not specific enough, you create unintended consequences. And I think once that becomes law, you cannot back up."
Chamber President and CEO Mike Neal emphasized his organization has generally been in support of the PLANiTULSA concept and process, and recognizes the need for the comprehensive plan to be updated, describing it as grossly outdated.
"But we see a number of things that need to be enhanced in the current draft document," he said.
Neal acknowledged the chamber had not endorsed the plan, and he indicated last month the organization would not unless it was given more time to study the document. He said that was not part of an effort to derail the process.
"We're not trying to pour cold water on it," he said.
Bates characterized the chamber's unwillingness to endorse the plan in its current state is an effort to increase its own visibility.
"That's Mike Neal trying to make the chamber look important still, and it's not," he said. "It's of questionable value to the business community. They want their name written into the plan. They've been feeding at the public trough for more than 20 years now with their chunk of the hotel/motel tax. They've never had to compete for that money."
Bates said the idea that the chamber should be formally recognized in the plan -- part of a series of revisions that chamber officials have presented to the commission -- doesn't hold water.
"A lot of people fail to see the value they add to the process," he said. "It would be inappropriate to write them in any more than it would be to include any other city vendors who come and go. My problem with the chamber is that it wants to be a private organization when it suits them, so there can be no scrutiny of them, but they want to be quasi-public when it suits them -- not just that level of authority, but the money, too. But they can't have it both ways anymore."
The chamber's attempts to modify certain elements of the plan need to be resisted, he said.
"The plan is for the general benefit of the entire community, and you've got institutions like the chamber that are all about making sure they continue to get a piece of the pie," he said. "This is not about what's in the best interest of Tulsa."
The differences of opinion over the document aren't likely to be settled any time soon. At the March 23 meeting, Cantrell laid out a timetable for adoption of the plan by the commission that continues over the next few months -- perhaps longer. The TMAPC was scheduled to begin its review process on March 31.
"Ideally, that would give us until sometime in June before we would get the final plan to the City Council, maybe July," she said. "That would be an optimistic view, if we could get it to them by the summer."
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