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Unsustainable Flashback: 'No change needed'

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Northwest Oklahoma City, north of Lake Hefner, circa 1969. Everything north of Memorial Road and west of Portland Avenue in this area was rural and for a while, City Hall sought to keep it this way.

Written by Steve Lackmeyer and Jack Money, October 27, 1999:

Proposed zoning guidelines that would limit development in rural Oklahoma City reopened a decade long debate between developers and urban planners during Tuesday's council meeting.

The battle resumed with Tuesday's arrival of a preliminary report about progress on the "OKC Plan Update," which city officials will use to guide future zoning decisions within the community's 622 square miles.

The proposed plan would restrict residential density but would continue to allow office towers higher than six stories in outlying areas. It drew praise from developers and criticism from council members concerned about growing urban sprawl.

Councilwoman Ann Simank, whose Ward 6 is predominately within the inner city, was the first to challenge retaining the status quo.

"Recommendations I heard today were to keep the same old guidelines. To me, that hasn't worked in the past. They are good guidelines to keep, but I think we need more," Simank said.

She said the plan doesn't do enough to slow urban sprawl.

"We have a lot of development happening in the outer rim of our city. And developers are looking at building new commercial buildings and new housing additions, and I understand that as a business. But is that really good for our city in the long run?"

Developers have a lot at stake with the plan. Most remember an effort by planning commissioners in the late 1970s to ban new residential developments northwest of Lake Hefner.

That attempt was overturned in a lengthy and bitter council debate.

Tuesday's presentation was the first of several that will take place over the next few weeks.

David Yost, a housing developer who serves as a member of the rural task force, said rules now governing the development of rural-residential land work well.

"We couldn't really find a reason why we need to change our current development policies," he said.

The proposed plan examines root causes and gives solutions to the city's urban sprawl problem - where residents move away from the inner city, followed by businesses, creating difficulties for inner-city neighborhoods and schools.

The new plan proposes dividing outlying areas of the city into urban growth, rural and rural estate districts.

Urban growth areas, primarily in the far north and far south, would allow the types of developments commonly seen there today because basic city services - water and sewer service and police and fire protection - already are in place.

But developers in future projects would be encouraged to bring in unified plans on residential homes, apartments and commercial developments for entire tracts, ending the practice of piecemeal zoning fights from residents about what should be allowed next to their neighborhoods.

In rural areas where water and sewer services aren't available, developers would be restricted to a maximum of 52 homes on any 160-acre tract.

Developers could either build one home on every five acres, or they could build up to 52 homes with one home on every three acres if some land is left undeveloped. Developers also could set aside land for commercial activities in each development, like convenience stores that might serve the neighborhood.

In rural estate areas, developers would be restricted to 111 homes on any 160-acre tract. There would be incentives for developers who proposed denser developments.

Simank also challenged suggestions by developers that the plan place no limit on office towers higher than six stories being built outside of downtown.

"If we continue to build smaller cities within a city by building tall commercial buildings further out and encouraging hundreds of workers to be in those buildings, keeping them away from downtown, it hurts us all," Simank said.

"When you don't take care of the central city, the problems spread out."

Bryan Coon, a coordinator of the urban development task force, told council members suburban office towers are a hot commodity among companies looking for new headquarters.

Mayor Kirk Humphreys, who appointed a special citizens panel to look at ways the inner city could be brought back, agrees he and other council members must admit at the outset they will never get everything they want in the plan update.

"I don't see a fight brewing," Humphreys said. "I see the different groups coming to a consensus. "

If a fight is to start, Humphreys expects it might begin over sprawl in far west Oklahoma City, where the Mustang school district has protested city zoning for new apartment complexes.

"But from what I've heard of the northwest side of Lake Hefner, no growth of 20 years ago, I don't see that kind of thinking in this," Humphreys said.

Planning Director Garner Stoll also tried to downplay past disputes, saying he is seeing a much more cooperative effort to reach an agreement on updating the plan.

"We are trying to provide some flexible techniques developers could use to maximize assets in each of these different development areas," Stoll told council members.

"But it won't be until we draft a new zoning ordinance that the regulatory issues come into focus. And obviously, those have to come back to you."

Same view of area of north and west of Lake Hefner today.

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Steve Lackmeyer

Steve Lackmeyer is a reporter, columnist and author who started his career at The Oklahoman in 1990. Since then, he has won numerous awards for his coverage, which included the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, the city's... Read more ›

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