State Supreme Court rejects city’s effort to put an end to Helmerich Park lawsuit

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The fight over the future of 8.8 acres of Helmerich Park is likely headed back to Tulsa County District Court after the state Supreme Court rejected an effort by the city to put an end to the case. KEVIN CANFIELD/The Frontier

The Oklahoma Supreme Court on Monday denied the city of Tulsa’s request that it assume jurisdiction over the Helmerich Park lawsuit pending in Tulsa County District Court and dismiss the case, according to the Supreme Court’s website.

The lawsuit now goes back before District Judge Jefferson Sellers.

In a prepared statement, Mayor G.T. Bynum indicated the city will continue to fight the case in court.

“Since taking office last December I have sought to resolve this long and drawn-out issue in the best interest of all Tulsans,” Bynum said. “There are important legal issues that need to be settled, and today’s ruling means we will have to wait a while longer for the judicial process to work through them. The most important thing is that we get it right.”

In its petition to the Supreme Court, the city — joined by the Tulsa Public Facilities Authority — argued that in allowing the lawsuit to go forward Sellers was putting the development and the jobs and sales tax revenue it would generate at risk as well as causing “significant monetary harm to the private developer.”

“Essentially the trial court is allowing a small group of taxpayers to thwart the City’s elected officials’ and the property owner’s (TPFA) desires regarding economic development and to supplant their beliefs as to what is in the best interest of the city while holding in jeopardy a multi-million dollar development deal that would substantially benefit the city and its taxpayers,” the petition states.

The Tulsa Public Facilities Authority signed an agreement Aug. 11, 2015, to sell 8.8 acres of Helmerich Park to Dallas developer Don Bouvier for $1.465 million. A lawsuit filed by several Tulsans, including former Tulsa Mayor Terry Young, has put the project on hold.

The plaintiffs have argued that the authority had no right to sell the property for commercial uses and that it did not follow proper procedures.

Young said in an email Monday that it was time for the developer to stop pursuing the project.

“We’re prepared to fight this in District Court and we believe we have the winning arguments,” Young said. “It’s time for the Dallas-based developer – UCR – to withdraw from the sale contract and go home.”

Earlier this year, the City Council — at the request of Mayor G.T. Bynum — voted 5-4 to declare the 8.8-acre tract no longer needed for park purposes and to require changes to the project’s development plan.

The council also voted to endorse the sale of the property by the Tulsa Public Facilities Authority and committed to dedicate all $1.465 million in proceeds from the sale to improve the remaining 60 acres of the park.

The measures were intended to address the concerns outlined in the plaintiffs’ lawsuit as well as to ensure that the development was in keeping with the natural setting on which it is to be built.

The plaintiffs have continued to pursue the lawsuit, however. In April, Sellers rejected the city’s claim that the District Court did not have subject-matter jurisdiction in the case because it does not involve misappropriation of taxpayer funds or illegal taxation.

The city and TPFA then filed a petition with the Supreme Court asking it to prohibit Sellers from continuing to hear the case and to assume jurisdiction.

The proposed 8.8-acre development site is along the Arkansas River on the southwest corner of Riverside Drive and 71st Street.

The development is to be anchored by Recreational Equipment Inc., a nationwide sporting goods and outdoor merchandise company with more than 140 stores but none in Oklahoma.

The other structures included in the original development plans are a 12,000-square-foot retail/restaurant space; a restaurant with a 6,000-square-foot patio facing the river; and a 7,000-square-foot restaurant and retail space at the north end of the property.

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