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Oklahoma City Council rejects proposed development on key area for vulnerable aquifer

Trees line Britton Road near the proposed development.
Graycen Wheeler
Trees line Britton Road at the edge of the proposed development.

After hearing nearly three hours of public comment, the Oklahoma City Council voted not to approve an application to build 655 homes on an area residents say is environmentally important.

The vote on the rezoning application ended in a 3-3 tie on Tuesday after several council members recused themselves. That means the land won’t be rezoned for Ideal Homes’s proposed development.

Most of Central Oklahoma sits on the Garber-Wellington Aquifer — an underground sandstone formation that soaks up water and stores it like a sponge. As wells and springs draw water from the aquifer, it replenishes itself mostly with water that soaks into the ground.

The 200-acre plot at the corner of Britton and Sooner Roads in northeastern Oklahoma City has been identified as particularly efficient at replenishing groundwater.

Local developer Ideal Homes has proposed a new neighborhood on the plot, but nearby homeowners have protested. Many of them rely on well water that comes from the Garber-Wellington.

More than 60 people signed up to speak at the May 9 city council meeting, most of them against the rezoning application.

They brought up concerns about flooding, tree removal, increased traffic and school capacity. But Councilwoman Nikki Nice, who represents the ward where the proposed development is located, said the Garber-Wellington Aquifer was key to her decision.

Where my concern has been from the beginning of wanting to understand more about the vulnerable aquifer, what that means as far as how that truly impacts this area,” Nice said.

Both sides of the issue brought in hydrologists to discuss the development’s effects on the aquifer.

We won't be depleting the aquifer,” said David Box, an attorney representing Ideal Homes. “And in fact, in a moment, I'm going to have Mr. Jim Roberts come up here. What he is going to testify is that we will actually increase the rate of recharge to the aquifer.”

Roberts, a local hydrogeologist, said that a retention pond in the middle of the development would hold water and give it time to soak into the aquifer.

But Burt Fisher, another local hydrologist who spoke at the meeting, said that wouldn’t make much of a difference. He referenced a study on the Garber-Wellington from the U.S. Geological Survey, which showed ponds and lakes don’t replenish the aquifer nearly as much as water that soaks into the ground. The development would pave over much of the area’s absorbent, sandy soil and level its water-catching contours.

The surface that now allows water to filtrate into the system will be decimated and replaced by hard surfaces,” said Frank Patterson, a geologist and area resident. “The water will just run off and never get into our reservoir.”

After hearing the conflicting reports, Nice said she wishes the city had its own assessments on how dense development affects groundwater.

“I would hope that in the future when we have staff reports that come to us, especially that say ‘vulnerable aquifers,’ that we just take the initiative to find that second opinion as far as us as the city getting a consultant,” Nice said.

Oklahoma is one of 20 states that allow protest petitions for rezoning applications. Normally, rezoning requires a simple majority of city council votes. But that changes if enough area landowners sign a protest petition. In Oklahoma, if people owning half of the land within 300 feet of the area to be rezoned sign the petition, the rezoning requires three-fourths of the votes.

More than 77% of the landowners within the required distance signed a protest petition, meaning that just three votes against it could shut down the rezoning application.

Mayor David Holt also stepped out, explaining that Ideal Homes had asked him to recuse himself.

“I don't necessarily agree, but I am not motivated in any way, shape or form to argue,” Holt said.

Councilman Mark Stonecipher also recused himself from the vote without explanation and Councilman Todd Stone was absent. Of the six remaining council members, Nikki Nice, James Cooper and Bradley Carter voted to deny the application. Because of the protest petition, those three votes were enough to stop the development from moving forward.

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Graycen Wheeler is a reporter covering water issues at KOSU as a corps member with Report for America.
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