PlaniTulsa’s popularly produced
plans to bring Tulsa into the
It’s the look of things to come.
But will the old guard give
in and let a new generation
Buried on the next-to-last page of the PLANiTULSA Draft Strategic Plan is a paragraph that close observers of the process to update the city's long-range plan long have viewed as sort of a ticking time bomb, a recommendation that is viewed as perhaps the single most important element in making the plan a success.
It also may be the most controversial element of PLANiTULSA -- nothing less than a fight waiting to happen, in the estimation of some.
Under the heading, "What Needs to be Done?" readers will find the following paragraph:
"The goal of this strategy is to consolidate the city's development-related activities into a Community Development Department and to bring the current -- and long-range planning functions -- now outsourced to INCOG -- into this new structure. This would enable City staff to review and analyze development requests, as well as staff to the Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission. The City of Tulsa should continue to support INCOG's leadership role in regional planning and transportation, and other regional functions that benefit the City of Tulsa as a member agency. INCOG's support and regional leadership is critical to implementing the PLANiTULSA vision."
While that may read like a simple reassignment of duties from one government entity to another, such a shift of planning functions from the Indian Nations Council of Governments to an in-house city department marked a sea change in the way Tulsa has handled development. Of course, in many ways, that's what the comprehensive plan update was created to do -- usher in a new era in the city's development.
It is important to note, however, that it is just a recommendation. INCOG director Rich Brierre pointed out the PLANiTULSA draft strategic plan was not part of the official comprehensive plan update that was adopted by the TMAPC and the City Council.
"It was not something that was subject to public hearing or public review," he said. "It was intended just as an identification of potential action items to be considered. So I think it would be important for those to be evaluated before there's a rush to make any changes."
And whether the city follows through on the proposal to internalize its planning function remains to be seen. Terry Simonson, Mayor Dewey Bartlett Jr.'s chief of staff, said no decision on that issue has been made and likely won't be for several months.
"That kind of decision belongs, first and foremost, in the hands of a professional planner," he said, referring to the city's newly created role of planning director. "Once we have a professional planner on board, we will ask he or she to do a comprehensive review of the planning landscape as we know it for the city of Tulsa and then to make recommendations to the mayor on how or where planning functions should be changed.
"It would be premature at this point for those of us in government, those of us in politics, to presume that we would know better, or know best, than a professional planner who's had that type of high-level experience in a city government," he said. "So everything would be on the table."
Simonson has said he hopes to have a planning director hired by late spring, and he said the director's review of the planning landscape would take at least 30 days.
"I think in fairness to anyone, you don't start them off by thrusting them into a controversy and expecting or demanding them to take sides," he said. "You want to give respect to their experience and their thinking and let them do their own due diligence. And, if it is someone who comes from another location, it is quite likely that there are planning models that work that either we don't do here or we never heard of."
By the middle of summer, Simonson said, the issue should be resolved. But if the Bartlett administration already is leaning one way or another, it's not apparent to District 9 Councilor G.T. Bynum.
"I really don't know what to expect because, outside of the discussions over the hiring of a planning director and the rewrite of the zoning code, I'm not aware of any discussions between the Mayor's Office and the City Council on implementing the recommendations of PLANiTULSA," he said.
It's a decision with serious implications for both sides but especially for INCOG, which employs the equivalent of 12 full-time people in its land-use department. The organization has handled the planning function for the TMAPC since 1980, Brierre said. An independent planning staff previously performed that job, he said.
INCOG was established in 1967 and is a voluntary association of local and tribal governments in the metropolitan area. It was created to provide planning and coordination services to assist in creating solutions to local and regional challenges in such areas as land use, transportation, community and economic development, environmental quality, public safety and services for older adults.
For the current fiscal year, Tulsa is paying INCOG $879,000, though that sum includes not only land use planning services but also dues and other allocations for regional programs operated by the organization, including the Area Agency on Aging and federally mandated transportation planning, according to city spokeswoman Kim MacLeod.
Given what's at stake for INCOG, more than a few observers expect the agency won't stand idly by and let that happen. They expect INCOG officials to do everything they can to sink that recommendation.
"I don't really look at it that way," said Bill Leighty, the chairman of the Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission, though he nevertheless expects INCOG officials to lobby hard to continue providing the planning function for the city. "When you have a source of revenue for 30-plus years, it's only natural to want to protect that revenue source and justify its continuance. It's human nature to want to do that."
Local political blogger Michael Bates, a vocal supporter of the comprehensive plan update, doesn't doubt INCOG will put up a fight.
"Mostly a lot of noise," he said, describing the form he expects that resistance to take. "I think there'll be some behind-the-scenes pushing, possibly through proxies. Also, they'll get officials from neighboring cities who benefit from this arrangement to lobby for them."
District 8 City Councilor Bill Christiansen was more blunt. He expects INCOG's director, Rich Brierre, and its manager of land development services, Wayne Alberty, "will probably do everything they can to stop it.
The Tulsa World will "obviously be putting their two cents in," too, he said.
Others are less sure.
"I have no clue how INCOG would react to that," District 7 Councilor John Eagleton said. "I haven't even pondered that."
Eagleton said there might be some hurt feelings if the city moves its planning function in house, but he doesn't expect it to go any further than that and cautioned against making too much of the potential for conflict.
"If the city of Tulsa chooses to pursue a certain direction, even if it's antagonistic to INCOG, I don't anticipate a battle," he said. "We're not married to it. This is not a bound-at-birth deal ... If one of the partners decides this relationship is no longer a benefit to them, they have the right to end it ... It's important to keep it in context."
Planning like a rock star
The idea of Tulsa bringing its planning function in house doesn't mean the city would be starting from scratch in that regard. The city already has a small-but-busy planning staff of 11, nine of whom are planners, that played an integral role in the update of the comprehensive plan and continues to work on the small area plans included in PLANiTULSA.
But all the work on rezoning and planning requests is left to INCOG's land use staff, which forwards its reports to the Planning Commission and City Council. If the city brings that function in house, the planning staff would become part of a much larger community development department that would include permitting and oversee all aspects of development, according to the PLANiTULSA strategic plan.
The idea is to create "one-stop shopping" for developers, attorneys and citizens alike, a streamlined, more transparent process that makes it easier to get questions answered.
There are likely to be plenty of questions. The city also is preparing to seek proposals from firms interested in helping Tulsa update its zoning code to reflect the objectives included in the comprehensive plan update, including language that promotes density and mixed-use development.
All of that will be happening at more or less the same time, although the hiring of a planning director will come first. Simonson believes that's a step that's long overdue, noting the yeoman's work done by Martha Schultz and Theron Warlick, the two city planners who oversaw the process by which the comprehensive plan was updated. He said their work was lauded by the people who performed the recent KPMG audit of city services.
"Considering that the Planning Department did not have a planning director and that those two were able to do as much as they did, it is a remarkable accomplishment on their part," he said.
"But equally remarkable is how you can be the 45th largest city in the country and not have a planning director. It's like people in the past either didn't understand planning or didn't take planning serious enough to think that a director of planning should be just as director as a director of public works or a director of information technology and a director of neighborhoods. So we reversed that, obviously, and took the PLANiTULSA recommendations not only seriously but moved it forward and started getting it done."
It is critically important, Leighty said, that the city hire a strong, well-qualified planning director. The task that individual faces, he said, is a difficult one.
"When you're talking about reorganizing all these resources and assets together, it's going to be important to have somebody who can see the big picture," Leighty said, expressing his hope that Warlick and Schultz receive some consideration for the job.
The job is about more than simple urban planning, he said.
"You need somebody who understands all aspect of community development, with an emphasis on transportation," he said.
The individual who winds up filling that position will have a big impact on the everyday lives of Tulsans, he said.
"I heard somebody say you need to hire a rock star," he said. "I don't know if we need to hire a rock star, but we need a good nuts-and-bolts person with political savvy who understands how government works, who is a peacemaker and who can consolidate various interests," he said.
Simonson said a nationwide search to fill the job will ensue. With the new planning director expected to make the recommendation to the mayor about whether to internalize the planning function, he said it may be that an outsider is the best fit.
"There may be some value to someone who has no history, no baggage, no agenda and no familiarity with things that may or may not have happened in the past," he said. "And that they come in with a completely unbiased, unprejudiced and objective lens to look at what makes a good planning function in Tulsa, Oklahoma. At the very least, we owe it to the planning director to give him or her the opportunity to kind of weigh in on the future look of planning."
Other critics, including former
Planning Commission member Liz Wright,
believe INCOG planners don’t take an
unbiased approach to evaluating the
development proposals that cross
Simonson said the new planning director would be paid roughly on par with the head of other city departments.
"We haven't targeted a salary, although I've been told that the planning director position in Oklahoma City is somewhere between $140,000 and $160,000 (annually)," he said. "And so ours may be comparable, but I don't know that that's been finally determined."
Simonson said a figure in that range would fit in well with the city's current salary structure for department heads.
"It's lower than some and higher than some," he said.
Still, he said, there's no guarantee that Tulsa would be able to land a desirable candidate for that kind of money.
"That we don't know," he said.
Local developer Jamie Jamieson, one of the more outspoken supporters of PLANiTULSA and a proponent of major change in the city's development policies, agreed with Leighty that the new planning director's role will be of the highest importance. He hopes the individual who fills that position doesn't take a back seat to any other department head.
the city shouldn’t
have its land use in
the hands of a
bureaucracy that’s not
"I see the planning director as a strategist," he said. "He's got to be a highly qualified senior manager. I see Public Works as the implementer, though that is not to diminish the crucial role of Public Works."
Jamieson frets that there is well-entrenched opposition at City Hall to some of the changes PLANiTULSA is heralding. The new planning director, he said, will have his hands full doing battle with those in other departments who cling to old standards of development.
"I don't think they understand PLANiTULSA and what it's about and that practices have to follow policy," he said. "PLANiTULSA is only a couple of months old, and there's some winning of hearts and minds that has to go on."
When the bill comes due
One of the biggest factors in determining whether Tulsa should internalize its planning function is the cost. Many opponents of the idea believe that city government -- still emerging from a series of cutbacks brought about by plunging sales tax receipts -- will have trouble making such a move work financially.
Mark Liotta, the chief deputy commissioner for Tulsa County and an ex-officio member of the Planning Commission, is among them.
"From my perspective, as the county's representative on the board, we get very good service from INCOG," he said. "They staff it very well. My understanding is that if the city created its own planning function, it would be very expensive. INCOG already has the personnel and the mapping in place, and the city would have to duplicate that. It doesn't seem logical to me the city could duplicate INCOG and save money. I think what we're doing now, using INCOG to staff the TMAPC, works very well."
Liotta said the issue may be worth examining, and he said the county is certainly to open to anything that saves the taxpayers money. He just doubts that would happen in this instance.
"Probably not, would be my guess," Liotta said. "But that's something they need to study before they make that decision."
Brierre believes the city receives great value for its money under the current arrangement.
"If you look at (financial) support, it's a bargain for the city of Tulsa," he said. "The vast majority of the caseload is the city of Tulsa, but at this time, the county of Tulsa is providing the majority of funding to support the TMAPC.
Brierre said the city's share of the funding for the Planning Commission comes to only 40 percent, though approximately 90 percent of the cases that come before the TMAPC concern sites in the city.
"The TMAPC is a structure that has had great stability over time," he said. "Both the city and the county have had budget challenges. The fact that this is jointly funded has provided great stability -- at the staff level, as well."
This isn't the first time the issue has arisen. A few years ago, Christiansen proposed the idea, though he noted that it gained little traction when developers rallied against it and a Tulsa World editorial decried its possible cost.
A feasibility study conducted in the winter of 2009 by the city staff examined that issue and issued a preliminary conclusion in favor of the idea. While that endorsement was extremely limited -- couched in a warning that the final figures presented in the report were estimates based on stated assumptions -- it nevertheless concluded "it appears to be feasible and therefore may be worthwhile for the City of Tulsa to further consider adding its own planning staff in support of Tulsa's own plan commission and board of adjustment due, in large part, to projected savings in overhead and fringe benefits, along with economies of scale associated with the City of Tulsa."
Leighty acknowledged that concerns over how much an in-house planning department is likely to cost will play a major role in the mayor's decision. He just wants Bartlett to keep that consideration in perspective.
"I hope it doesn't just come down to that," he said. "It's not all about money. It's about the best and most efficient way to do things. We need the best community development department we can go for."
Liotta still doesn't understand why supporters of the change think it's necessary.
"What we've seen over the years in working with INCOG is, we're very happy with INCOG and very happy with the service," he said. "I ask again, what's the problem?"
That's a question Bynum seems happy to answer. He claims he has no beef with regional planning in general and strongly supports INCOG's lead role in compiling a transportation plan for the area. But he hasn't always been happy with what the city has gotten from the agency in terms of land use planning.
"Not so much a feeling that they don't provide good service as much as there is a lack of accountability," he said. "The situation that crystallized that for me was the situation with the Sonoma Grande apartment complex. That was built using a (planned unit development) that was something like 30 years old and had been approved by the previous form of government (Tulsa switched from a commission form of government to the current mayor-city council style in 1989.) That's how old it was."
The controversy over Sonoma Grande may well have proved to be a tipping point in the debate over zoning and development in Tulsa. Residents of a neighboring subdivision were furious about the height and proximity of the apartments, claiming they weren't adequately warned about it beforehand.
Bynum contends the INCOG planning staff presented the plan for the complex to neighbors as an innocuous project, and few of them bothered to show up at the Planning Commission's public hearing. It was only when the project was being built, and the size of it became apparent, that neighbors became alarmed. By then, it was too late, he said.
"So you've got people in a really nice neighborhood who had probably experienced substantial damage to their property values by this project," he said.
Many of those residents complained to the City Council, Bynum said.
"When we tried to raise this as an issue, the Planning Commission pointed at INCOG, and INCOG pointed elsewhere," he said. "Ultimately, no one could be held accountable for this terrible error that impacted those folks."
That experience left him with serious doubts about the current system.
"If we can have a system that makes accountability more clear and stayed within the city, I would be supportive of that," he said.
That controversy was a watershed moment for Christiansen, as well.
"As a councilor, you see it all happen," he said. "You see your constituents you represent, and you see what happened at Sonoma Grande, and you say to yourself, 'It's got to change.'"
For Christiansen, who said he was deluged with complaints from residents during the Sonoma Grande episode, now is the perfect time to switch to a city-run planning department.
"The citizens come to us," he said. "We have all of the accountability and the questions but no control. INCOG doesn't work for us."
Liotta rejects the implication that the blame for the Sonoma Grande controversy should be laid at the feet of the Planning Commission.
"The purpose of the TMAPC is to make recommendations to the City Council," he said. "We make no decisions, we make recommendations."
Liotta defended the current arrangement, saying he believes it's important to have an independent organization like the TMAPC -- one that is free from political pressure -- evaluating and making recommendations about development proposals.
"To move that in house, I think, you lose the independence of this cooperative body," he said.
Christiansen has heard that claim before and bristles at it.
"A lot of people have said, 'You don't want to turn this over to the city because then it becomes political,' " he said. "It's already political. We're already involved. We just want to be involved at an earlier point in the process so we can better represent the citizens."
Bynum doesn't buy Liotta's argument, either.
"My response is, first, it's illegal for a city councilor to tell city staff to do anything," he said of the possibility of him or one of his associates on the council interfering with the process. "Second, the city shouldn't have its land use in the hands of a bureaucracy that's not accountable to the public."
Who's side are they on?
The complaints about INCOG's performance in land use planning go well beyond councilors' concerns about accountability. Other critics, including former Planning Commission member Liz Wright, believe INCOG planners don't take an unbiased approach to evaluating the development proposals that cross their desks.
"They're not neutral," she said. "They're not being fair to the citizens."
Jamieson believes INCOG has developed an institutional bias on the side of developers at the expense of neighborhoods. That's not good for anyone, he said.
"Developers need to put the interests of neighborhoods first," he said. "Ultimately, you develop a better bottom line by doing that. And that's not to say there aren't some good people at INCOG, because there are."
The proper relationship between Tulsa and INCOG -- one in which the city is the client, with its interests being served -- has largely been forgotten in favor of that developer-friendly approach by INCOG, he said.
"It's been flipped on its head for too long," he said, a dynamic that has led to an endless series of disputes between developers and neighborhoods.
Bates believes the INCOG planning staff has simply grown too comfortable with the developers and attorneys they work with on a routine basis, and have concluded it is their job to facilitate what those developers want -- regardless of whether it's in the best interests of the surrounding area or the city at large.
He said that's not so much a case of outright hostility toward residents.
"It's more a case of misjudging the importance of public support," he said. "They operate in a world where the public's voice is seen as irrelevant to the outcome of a zoning or planning decision. That's kind of a foreign notion."
But Brierre said it's an unfair criticism to argue that a vast majority of applications are approved by the Planning Commission.
"I think there's a desire to find a win-win situation," he said of his staff's approach. "I think, too often, issues have become win-lose. There's not been a desire to seek out the most workable solution."
While many of the cases that come before the TMAPC regard well-known developers, Brierre said others regard mom-and-pop operations or situations in which people want to add a room to their house or replace a garage. He also argued that, in many cases, an application that is not in the best interests of the community is never formally made because it already has been made clear to the inquiring party that the change stands little chance of being approved, he said.
Bates doesn't mince words when evaluating the job INCOG has done on the city's behalf.
"I think it's been bad," he said. "There are certain individuals who work for INCOG who have the ability to do real planning, but institutionally, there's not any real forethought. They'll make a zoning change and then go back and change the comprehensive plan to reflect that."
Christiansen shares Bates' contention that residents routinely get short shrift in such cases. And he said he can't do much to help them.
"In terms of zoning, the citizens have been at the back of the bus," he said. "It's hard for a councilor because we try to do the right for our constituents, and under the current process, it's very difficult."
Christiansen repeated Bates' assertion that a handful of zoning attorneys have grown too close relationship to INCOG's planning staff, some of them even working in the same building as the Planning Commission. That gives them a distinct advantage over the average citizen, he said, though he noted he doesn't blame them for exploiting that.
"They know the system and how to access it," he said. "The citizens don't know the process at all, and they wind up calling the council."
In the wake of the Sonoma Grande episode, Christiansen wound up chairing a group -- the Land Use Task Force -- charged with exploring how the process went astray and what could be done to improve communication between planners, developers and citizens.
The councilor said a number of important recommendations came out of that process, and he credited the INCOG planning staff with generating many of them.
"They came to the table with new ideas and remedies to improve communication," he said. "They really did make a lot of the suggestions, which I commend them for."
Brierre said the INCOG land use staff instituted a number of important changes to improve communication. When an application for a zoning change is made now, he said, the information is immediately posted on the TMAPC Web site, including the applicant's name, phone number and e-mail address.
"So that neighbor who may be concerned about a project can contact the applicant, owner, design professional or legal counsel directly," he said.
Brierre said INCOG's land-use staff strives to be responsive to public officials, as well.
"When the City Council or the mayor have asked for studies on issues, our staff has done that, and the Planning Commission has responded," he said, citing the quick work the land-use staff and the Planning Commission did in regard to requests to have the zoning code adapted to permit roof-top signs in the Blue Dome district and community gardens in some areas of the city.
Leighty was a member of that task force and said his experience with that group prepared him well for his service on the Planning Commission.
"I got the opportunity to listen to the complaints of neighborhood groups who felt they were ignored, that they had no voice in the decisions that happened," he said. "They just didn't feel part of it, and they believed they were not fully represented."
Eventually, Leighty said, he began to view those complaints in a different light.
"Philosophically speaking, when I came on the Planning Commission, I came with a real estate background and a development-favorable mindset," he said. "That's not unusual; everybody comes with some kind of history.
"But sitting there through those meetings and listening to people speak ... I began to see some of the complaints people had about feeling disenfranchised, and the complaints about the lack of transparency that I used to scoff at, well, I understand now. I get it ... I have determined people really have the right to have a say-so in what their community looks like and how it grows."
Yet, despite their complaints, even critics of the current system acknowledge developers can't be held accountable for all its faults. Leighty said developers often complain about having to jump through hoops just to do a simple infill project, and he said many of those complaints are well founded.
Wright believes the problem goes deeper.
"Developers get all the fingers pointed at them, but I think there are citizens involved, too," she said. "We have this weird concept of land use here: 'This is my property, you better not tell me what I can be doing with it, but the person across the street better not do anything I don't like.' It's like a Wild West concept regarding land rights."
If the city does create its own Community Development Department, complete with a full-fledged planning division, Simonson said it's likely that would be done in one fell swoop.
The controversy over Sonoma Grande may well have proved to be a
tipping point in the debate over zoning and development in Tulsa.
Residents of a neighboring subdivision were furious about the height and
proximity of the apartments, claiming
they weren’t adequately warned about
"If there is any reason to go in that direction, you would think it's either done in phases or incrementally," he said. "It certainly doesn't seem to make any good sense to totally disrupt the planning functions in haste."
Many supporters of the PLANiTULSA recommendation in favor of a city-operated planning department believe that any attempt to derail the proposal at this point would be futile.
"I think ultimately, it's a waste of their time," Jamieson said. "The writing is on the wall, the world is changing and they need to get over it. We have to mature as a city and face the future responsibly. We can't afford to indulge an old boy network any longer."
That won't stop that argument from taking place, he realizes.
"I'm not worried about the outcome because we've got an excellent platform," he said. "I'm more worried about the time we're going to lose and inefficient energies. Now is the time to galvanize people into a new sense of excitement, not descend into old vs. new bickering."
Jamieson said there's no need for that to happen. Like Eagleton, he frames Tulsa's relationship with INCOG as a simple business arrangement -- one the city is free to end at any time.
"It's not rocket science," he said. "INCOG is a supplier, a vendor to the city of Tulsa."
Some have speculated the Tulsa Metro Chamber is likely to intercede on INCOG's behalf in the coming months, but Bates doesn't think that kind of maneuver stands much of a chance of being successful.
"Judging from their (lack of) success during [the PLANiTULSA public hearings], not very," he said. "I think they managed to annoy a lot of people during that process. Their attempt to get themselves written into the plan and to keep control of the plan didn't win any friend on their part."
Tulsa's elected officials appear to have lined up behind the recommendation, he believes.
"I think because INCOG doesn't have any significant support on the council and doesn't appear to have any support in the mayor's office, in the end, it won't be much of a battle at all," Bates said, noting that most of the councilors were elected over the objections of the development community.
However, Bates does foresee the possibility of INCOG retaining some role in the city's planning function.
"As a compromise, INCOG could continue to provide the record-keeping process, but the actual recommendation role would be handled in house by the city of Tulsa," he said. "That would be a way of splitting the difference and allowing INCOG to save face but the city of Tulsa is in charge of its own destiny."
Brierre continues to maintain it's clear the city can't commit to creating its own land use capability for the money it pays INCOG now and warned against a rush to judgment.
"Any type of organizational structure is something that has to be thoroughly reviewed and fully considered before any change is made," he said. "You need to understand the benefits of the current structure and the challenges of changing that would need to be considered. If you look at the KPMG study (a recent independent audit of city services), the focus is on efficiency. The TMAPC is one area that offers that at the present time."
Leighty differs from many other supporters of the proposal in that he defends the job INCOG has done for the city, especially in the face of the declining resources it has had to work with.
"Historically, it's been a good thing, it's not been a bad thing," he said of the city's relationship with INCOG. "It's just a new day ... I hope the city will recognize that INCOG played a very valuable role in making Tulsa a great place to live. If that role is going to change, it's because they didn't necessarily do anything bad, it's just because we found a new way to do things."
In any event, he hopes the decision is made relatively quickly. Like Jamieson, his greatest fear is of a drawn-out battle that stalls the momentum PLANiTULSA helped create.
"Let's be honest: nerves are a little fragile right now, and it's not real productive to have this going on forever," he said. "The sooner it can get resolved, the better."
Christiansen is hopeful a showdown with INCOG and some members of the development community can be avoided, even wondering if the Land Use Task Force could be reactivated to address the concerns of everyone. He believes developers have as much to gain from a new system as citizens.
"I think inclusiveness going forward is really the word for anybody who wants to be involved in it," he said. "Sonoma Grande wasn't an inclusive process. The citizens weren't included. That's not right, and that's what we're trying to fix -- to make it a fair process for everybody."
If a new system emerges, he said, it has to have buy-in from both sides.
"It can't be too far slanted toward the neighborhoods, and it can't be too far slanted to developers," he said. "I'm convinced that, after experiencing zoning for going on nine years, there's a better way to do it ... We shouldn't let a couple of department heads or businessmen derail (the) recommendations."
Simonson distilled the issue to just a few words, dismissing the notion that huge changes could be on the horizon.
"We're always going to need INCOG," he said. "So the debate, to me, isn't, 'Do we need an INCOG?' The debate is, 'Does it look any different in the future than it does now or does it look the same?' "
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