A disheartening zoning code amendment that allows much larger residential driveways, even in established midtown neighborhoods will be considered at a Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission Public Hearing at 1:30 PM on Wednesday, May 2nd in the 2nd Level Council Room, One Technology Center, 175 E. 2nd St.

This idea is the City of Tulsa’s response to a request from the Home Builders Association of Greater Tulsa “for wider curb cuts to accommodate the site design/layouts their clients are requesting which often, and especially for larger lots, include three-car garages.”

It’s a misguided effort that is disappointing on many levels

The amendment would arguably be a step backwards in achieving the goals of our comprehensive plan.  Current regulations prohibit driveways that are wider than 20′ inside the public right of way, and for good reason.  Driveways generally cross pedestrian pathways and keeping them narrow helps create the kind of safe, walkable neighborhoods that are typically high priorities in the place-making strategies of smart cities.

The current zoning code establishes residential driveway width based on zoning districts by applying specific dimensions, which was determined to be easier for applicants to calculate and for staff to administer.

Here are the details

As outlined in a document presented to planning commissioners at an April 4th Work Session, “the purpose for having a maximum width is to support the residential character of neighborhoods and prevent lots from becoming fully paved parking areas in front of single family homes.  Narrower driveways on smaller lots are more consistent with existing development patterns in older parts of the community.”

In the past, developers often amended PUD’s or applied for “special exceptions” when claiming hardship or extenuating circumstances that might warrant relief from the existing code.  Most of those applications were routinely approved if it was determined the changes were not injurious to neighbors and did not negatively impact the character of the neighborhood.

Apparently to placate the HBA, the zoning amendment proposes that driveway widths be determined by lot dimensions instead of zoning district designations; it allows the amount of frontage along a street to serve as context for the maximum width of a driveway within the public right of way.  An additional provision was added to prohibit more than 50% of lot frontage occupied by a driveway, but that allows for totally inappropriate development in our more established neighborhoods.  If approved, driveways could actually be 6 feet wider than most residential streets.

This is bad public policy and here’s why  

The proposal is a short-sighted, one-size fits all solution to a problem that only a few homebuilders seem to recognize.  Clearly, our future transportation needs and choices will not be defined by the auto-centric culture of the past.  With expanded public transit options and the eminent arrival of autonomous vehicles, the demand for suburban styled three-car garages will diminish, not grow.

Sadly, the HBA leadership seems oblivious to the nationwide trends toward a more urban lifestyle nationwide, by building density in targeted areas to save on infrastructure and maintenance costs.  Their demand for these zoning changes is an over-reach of significant proportions that will have far reaching unintended consequences.

There may be a few instances where the demand for wider driveways might be more acceptable, like newly planned outlying subdivisions; where neighborhoods are designed for like-minded home buyers who place a premium on three-car garages and wide driveways.  There are existing zoning tools, like simple overlay districts, that could accommodate such developments without putting the rest of our beautiful established neighborhoods at risk.

The following points, made in a letter to the TMAPC by the Bicycle/Pedestrian Advisory Committee further illustrate why this proposal is contrary to building a more livable city:

  • Driveways, by definition, cross pedestrian pathways. Wider driveways increase the size of this conflict zone and reduce the comfort and safety of people who walk.
  • Wide driveways enable higher driving speeds on residential streets and encourage drivers to make faster turns. The extra width allows for a wide turn radius and eliminates the need to slow while approaching a turn.
  • Wide driveways are associated with street-facing multi-car garages.  Street-facing garages mean more blank walls, fewer windows, and fewer “eyes on the street.”
  • Wider driveways mean more asphalt and less green space. They contribute to heat islands, eliminate space for shade trees, and increase runoff to local stormwater sewer systems.

It’s yet another case of the tail wagging the dog 

This ill-conceived proposal is a textbook example of how a small special interest group with political influence can convince elected officials to take the actions they want, without presenting the potential negative effects on the rest of the community.  They have lawyers, consultants, lobbyists and other resources that elected officials find difficult to resist.  They take advantage of a process that provides limited notice of the issues accompanied by little, if any, media attention.  It typically flies under the radar of almost everyone, except the most devoted policy wonks and neighborhood activists.

Meanwhile, many if not most homeowners are disengaged and assume our leaders will look out for the broader interests of the community; so it is perceived there is no urgency to rally the troops.  Then, lacking any visible organized efforts to counter the special interests, bad ideas are often approved by the planning commission and the city council.  It can be years later before the adverse effects of these poorly conceived zoning decisions become apparent.

What can you do? 

If you are troubled by this specific proposed amendment to the zoning code, you are encouraged to act quickly and register your concerns with the TMAPC Planning Commissioners who will consider it.  Direct your email to Michael Covey, Chairman at esubmit@incog.org regarding Public Hearing Item 23: ZCA-10, and comment on your apprehensions.  Your email should arrive by the close of business on Monday, April 30th, but no later than Tuesday, to insure that commissioners see your comments in advance of the meeting.  You might also consider copying the mayor@cityoftulsa.org. You can also help spread the word by sharing this post if you feel so inclined.

If you would like to help level the playing field when it comes to future land use cases and insure that homeowners are well-represented, consider supporting Smart Growth Tulsa, a local volunteer non-profit who advocates for smart public policies.  You might also join the conversation and stay abreast of other important civic matters on their Facebook Page.

And finally, if you are thinking of buying or selling a home, please remember me, because you and your neighborhood have a friend in real estate.

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