A year ago, we unearthed a controversial recommendation hidden in the PlaniTulsa draft. This short recommendation outlined a plan that would: "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 (TMAPC). 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."
The long and short of it: Dump the Indian Nations Council of Governments (INCOG) as a contractor for the city of Tulsa's planning department. While this recommendation wasn't a part of the official comprehensive plan adopted by the TMAPC and City Council in 2011, many city wonks still believe INCOG should bow out of planning duties.
On April 26, Bill Leighty, real estate broker for McGraw Realtors and chairman of the TMAPC, wrote an open letter to Mayor Dewey Bartlett Jr. "After serving as a planning commissioner for one year under former Mayor Kathy Taylor and the last two plus years during your administration, including one as chairman, I have concluded the present contract with INCOG for TMAPC staff support is an outdated model that is not working well for the city of Tulsa," he wrote.
"My conclusion is based upon what I observe as a general lack of accountability on the part of INCOG when it comes fulfilling their responsibilities under the existing contract. As an example I would cite their recent failure to provide a staff report or recommendation in advance of a public hearing on one of the most important zoning matters to come before the Commission in decades," he wrote.
The zoning matter he's referencing involves the Pearl District's form-based code. Leighty also criticized INCOG for what he sees as a "failure to provide adequate and ongoing continuing education and training for the planning commissioners," he wrote.
And finally, Leighty addressed the perception by citizens that there is a "cozy relationship between staff and some members of the development community, which hinders transparency in government," he wrote.
Leighty called out planning commissioners who make decisions about Tulsa though they aren't residents of the city. He also mentioned the buried recommendation in the PlaniTulsa draft. "I believe the time has come to make a decisive change and I respectfully request that you direct Dawn Warrick to define objectives and develop an orderly transition plan to bring current and long-range planning 'in-house,'" he wrote. "While the city of Tulsa values its continuing and indispensable partnership with INCOG for regional transportation planning, a great opportunity exists to make this consolidation now, in conjunction with recent and announced major changes in INCOG's TMAPC staff and personnel."
INCOG's land use department employs the equivalent of 12 full-time people, and the organization has handled planning duties for the TMAPC since 1980. For the past 32 years, the city, the planning commission and INCOG have had a cozy relationship.
INCOG was established in 1967 as a voluntary assembly of local and tribal governments in the Tulsa metropolitan area. The organization was created to provide local and regional planning, information and coordination services that would result in solutions for Green Country issues involving land use, transportation, community and economic development, environmental quality, public safety and services for the elderly.
INCOG is the Metropolitan Planning Organization for regional transportation planning and is designated as an Economic Development District by the federal Economic Development Administration for the Tulsa area, which gives it access to federal funding for city of Tulsa projects.
INCOG provides staff to the TMAPC, the city Board of Adjustment (BOA), and the Metropolitan Environmental Trust (M.E.T.). The association boasts improved public notice of applications for land use changes; its development of interactive maps of cases pending before TMAPC and the BOA; recent website improvements; and implementation of recommendations from the city's Land Use Education and Communication Task Force.
Since it's not officially a city of Tulsa department, INCOG's performance isn't measured or maintained as part of the city's Strategic Plan. Currently, the city and INCOG are discussing a move toward standardized service metrics.
Since 2010, INCOG's budget has grown. In 2010, the organization's operating budget was $860,000. In 2011, the budget grew to $879,000. This year? The budget is estimated at $948,000.
Despite a recommendation to the contrary -- along with the opposition of some prominent Tulsans like Bill Leighty, chairman of the TMAPC, and Pearl District advocate and developer Jamie Jamieson -- INCOG's budget and influence appears to be growing.
The city also has a hand in its own planning. The city's planning department has a staff of 11, nine of whom are planners. But as the 45th largest city in the U.S., Leighty believes Tulsa should take a more serious stance toward thoughtful planning and development.
A few years ago, former District 8 City Councilor Bill Christiansen first proposed the idea of reducing INCOG's role in planning. Developers rallied against Christiansen's idea and the Tulsa World editorial decried the projected cost, UTW reported last year.
The general consensus on INCOG seems to be the organization is great at handling some things, not so great at dealing with others. When it comes to regional transportation, INCOG has been a good fit; but INCOG has been criticized for its land use planning and development services.
Frustrations over the Sonoma Grande apartment complex -- new construction apartments on 81st St. near Mingo Road -- brought INCOG's performance to the forefront. The apartments were constructed in front of a large single-family residential neighborhood. With little advance warning of what was to come, homeowners were shocked to see a big apartment complex being constructed right outside their backyards.
City councilors fielded a barrage of complaints from citizens during Sonoma Grande's construction, which had been approved by INCOG. Since the Sonoma Grande situation, INCOG has made strides to improve communication. Now, when an application for a zoning change is made, the information is posted immediately to the TMAPC website.
When UTW originally reported criticisms of INCOG last year, Terry Simonson, former mayoral chief of staff, said a new planning director (not yet hired in February last year) would handle the issue. Since then, the city of Tulsa hired Dawn Warrick to be its first-ever planning and economic development director. Warrick has been at the job for nearly five months now, and no decision has been announced on the future of the city's relationship with INCOG.
But some Tulsans are eagerly awaiting her recommendations. Leighty, a real estate broker with McGraw Realtors and outspoken advocate of the comprehensive plan, said he believes "the city of Tulsa and INCOG are involved in a business relationship that is not working well and we need to change it. We need to modify it."
Leighty said INCOG might continue providing mapping services and record-keeping management, but that planning and recommendations should come from within the city itself. He's bothered by what he sees as INCOG's lack of accountability. As we mentioned, the city is in talks with INCOG to come up with some kind of "metric" wherein the city can measure INCOG's success or failure on various projects.
Leighty also said he believes that INCOG officials have distanced themselves from the expansion of the Pearl District regulating plan. "I challenge the assertion that the expansion of the regulating plan is the brainchild of the Pearl Design Team," Leighty said. "In my opinion, it is terribly disingenuous of the INCOG staff to claim no proprietorship of this planning effort. They arranged for the TIF funds, contracted with the zoning code consultant, and managed the entire process of implementing the FBC (form-based code) in the so-called pilot area, all the way through approval by the City Council, always acknowledging the eventual and inevitable expansion across the entire Pearl District as had been envisioned by the 6th Street Infill Plan.
"It was not until it became clear there was some opposition to the plan that staff began backtracking and denying any responsibility for authorship of the plan," Leighty said.
There's also the issue of a too-cozy relationship between INCOG staffers and local developers. Over the years, neighborhood advocates have decried this relationship, whether real or imagined. Leighty said that while this perception isn't always accurate, the lack of transparency needs to be addressed. Leighty is careful to parse his words on this subject -- he said he isn't accusing INCOG staffers of illegal activities or wrongdoing. "However, there are occasions when I've felt their longstanding relationships with some developers has resulted in recommendations that are not as balanced as the community expects and deserves," he said.
And the timing may be good to change up INCOG's role in Tulsa planning. Personnel changes -- like the addition of Warrick to the planning department and the recent retirement of Land Development Services Manager Wayne Alberty -- could ease a changeover of duties.
Leighty said, "These proposed changes have been talked about for years, if not decades, and it is high time we began to act on them."
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