By James Beaty
Greg Rolen leveled his gaze at the McAlester City Council and asked a question he believed went straight to the core.
“Do you listen to the people, or do you listen to somebody’s pocketbook?”
He got his answer minutes later, when the city council joined by Mayor Steve Harrison voted unanimously to reject a request to rezone a section of north McAlester from a R-1B Single Family designation to a C-5 Highway Commercial District.
Afterwards, an obviously elated Rolen felt the city council did the right thing.
“I feel really good about the vote,” he said.
Rolen had been joined by Coluah Watts Stanfield, Thanita Spencer and Frank Tedrick, among others, in blasting the proposed rezoning change — which would have resulted in a new storage facility for boats and RVs in the residential neighborhood.
Speaking doing a public hearing on the rezoning effort, they also made known their concerns that the expansion would cause some harm to come to the Jerusalem Baptist Church at 503 E. Mill Ave.
Although it’s vacant and in need of renovation, Stanfield called it “one of the first and oldest black churches, established in McAlester in 1901.” Her father, the late Rev. Wade Watts, a renowned civil rights leader who has a McAlester street named in his honor, served as pastor at the historic church for more than 30 years.
“One of my concerns is that this was a push to get it bulldozed down,” Stanfield said.
The issue had been listed innocuously enough on the agenda when the city council met in regular session Tuesday night in the council chambers at City Hall.
It called for city councilors to “consider and act upon a rezone (request) for all that portion of MK&T Railroad in Blocks 136, 137, 138 and 139 in North McAlester” from the single family to the highway commercial designation.
It also came with a recommendation from the city Planning Commission to pass the measure — although it had passed the commission on a split 4-2 vote among the members present at the time.
Behind the request had been a plan by Harlan Heinicke to construct a storage facility for boats and recreational vehicles, also known as RVs.
Those who were opposed to the rezoning effort and the storage facility had been unsuccessful in their efforts before the zoning commission.
“Since this rezoning effort started, I feel like I’m being pushed around,” Stanfield said, addressing the city councilors before they voted on the issue.
Frank Tedrick, who lives on East Mill Avenue, also addressed the council on the issue.
“I don’t want this in our neighborhood, either,” he said. Those opposing the project said a chain link fence with barbed-wire, or razor wire on the top, has already been constructed at the proposed expansion site, although the rezoning issue had not yet been voted on by the council.
“It looks like a prison camp over there,” Tedrick said.
After listening to criticism of his plans for the new storage facility, Heinicke addressed the council and referred to the church building.
“That building hasn’t had anybody in it for 10 years,” he said, adding it would take major renovations to make it useable.
“Half the building is on my property,” he added.
“I know the city doesn’t want to condemn it,” Heinicke said. “It’s not a church anymore,” he said, calling it more of an “eyesore” than anything he’s done on his property.
In response to a question, Heinicke said he doesn’t live in McAlester.
“I spend more time in the city than I do in my home,” he said.
Heinicke’s characterization of the church’s appearance brought a response from Spencer.
“You called my church and eyesore,” Spencer said. “I am highly offended by that,” she said, recalling how her great-grandmother had gone to church at the site.
“It may look like trash to you,” she said to Heinicke, but it’s valuable to the church family and the black community, she added.
“I played on that very street before I went into the United States Navy,” she said.
Rolen addressed the council again.
“I grew up in that church,” he said. “The people in the neighborhood don’t see it as an eyesore.”
Turning to the city council, Rolen said, “Consider what the people want — not just one man.”
Heinicke returned to the podium.
“If we were going by sentimentality, we’d all be running around in covered wagons,” he said.
Heinicke also said, “I’m just as religious as all of you” and added that when he called the building an “eyesore,” it may been a bad choice of words.
After the citizens spoke, the city council added some remarks, with Ward 5 Councilor Buddy Garvin getting straight to the point.
“I will vote ‘no’ against it,” Garvin said of the rezoning proposal. “The citizens of my ward have spoken very strongly against it. They said ‘No, I don’t want it.’”
Ward 3 Councilor Travis Read said that after some trees were removed near his property, the view from his back porch has changed — he can now see approximately 50 storage buildings.
“I wouldn’t buy a house on property if that is in my view; I know it’s affected my property values,” he said.
Read said he didn’t think the rezone would benefit the city.
“These citizens don’t want it,” Read said of the rezone and the planned RV and boat storage site.
“If I lived in that neighborhood, I wouldn’t want it either.”
Ward 2 Councilor John Titsworth said, “I agree that this is a poor place to put it. I think the church has some history behind it. I don’t think we should mess with the church or anybody around it.”
Ward 6 Councilor and Vice Mayor Sam Mason criticized how the matter was handled by some members of the Planning Commission, which tabled the item during a June meeting, then voted on it and passed it on a split vote 4-2 vote in July, only after the start of the meeting was extended so a quorum of the 11-member commission could be present.
“The planning commission said the meeting was scheduled for 6:30,” Mason said. “At 6:30, they had no quorum, so they started calling to get a quorum.” He said the commission waited nearly a half-hour, until 6:56, for another member of the planning commission to arrive back from a trip to Oklahoma City before starting the meeting.
“I don’t know why they would do that,” Mason said, saying the planning commission seemed “bound and determined” to vote on the issue that night. Mason also said he would never wait that long for a city council quorum if the councilors were not in attendance when it was time for the meeting to start.
Mason also asked those who were opposed to the rezoning request if they were aware the planning commission would vote on the matter at its July meeting. They said they weren’t.
“I don’t think they were notified,” Mason said. He added that even if it was not legally required, the planning commission should have made some effort at notification.
Mason also said the minutes of the planning commission’s meeting shows the recommendation for a rezone passed 6-0, when it only passed 4-2.
Planning commission members who voted in July to support Heinicke’s request to rezone the property were commission Chairman Mark Emmons, Harvey Bollinger, Susan Kanard and Justin Few, the member who had arrived late for the meeting.
Voting “no” against the rezone request were Karen Stobuagh and Ross Eaton.
The News-Capital contacted Emmons on Thursday about the council’s unanimous denial of the commission’s recommendation to rezone the property.
“It doesn’t really surprise me,” Emmons said. “This is one of those that could have gone either way.”
He said the property in question has an unusual shape and he doesn’t see how it could be used for a residential purpose.
Emmons confirmed that the commission members who were present delayed the start of the July meeting until Few could arrive to make a quorum.
Asked how long the beginning of the meeting was delayed, Emmons said “less than half an hour.”
What about allegations that the planning commission was determined to pass the rezone request during the July meeting. Was that the case?
“Not really, no,” Emmons said. “ I don’t think anybody’s mind was made up.”
He said the commission wanted to bring the matter to a vote without drawing it out any longer.
“We felt like it was more important to deal with it,” he said. “It had already been tabled,” Emmons said, referring to what happened during the meeting held in June.
As for Mason’s statement that the minutes of the planning commission’s of the July minutes don’t accurately portray the 4-2 vote on the matter, Emmons said the planning commission has not yet approved the July meeting minutes. That’s normally done the following month, Emmons said, adding that he doesn’t think the commission will have a meeting in August.
Meanwhile, at the Tuesday night city council meeting, Ward 1 Councilor Weldon Smith said he’s sensitive to the feelings of the residents who live in the area.
Mayor Steve Harrison said, “Anybody who knows me knows I like old buildings.” He added that he also likes to see them restored.
He said in the end, he hopes everyone can work together to make it a win-win situation for all.
Soon thereafter, the city council and Harrison voted unanimously to deny Heinicke’s request and the city Planning Commission’s recommendation for a rezone of the property.
Heinicke left City Hall immediately after the vote, but Spencer, Stanfield, Tedrick, Rolen and others talked briefly in the lobby outside, obviously highly pleased with the decision.
“I love it,” Spencer said. She recalled how her great-grandmother, Cordelia Ford Benton, has been a member of the church.
“We need to keep the history,” she said.
Tedrick also liked the decision.
“The city council stood up for the residents,” he said.
Stanfield said she had to face a lot of opposition before prevailing in front of the McAlester City Council on Tuesday night.
Her late father, the Rev. Watts, revered in civil rights circles as well as among the many people who had called him a friend in the McAlester area, across the state and around the nation, had left a high standard for her, she said.
During his lifetime, the Rev. Watts had stood before the McAlester City Council many times to open the group’s meeting with a prayer.
He had also stood up for his rights and the rights of others, marching in Alabama with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King during the civil rights struggles of the 1960s.
Stanfield said trying to uphold the standards set by her father when trying to find justice is not always easy.
Still, she believes she knows where she found the inspiration to make her own successful presentation to the city council. She credited her success to God and her inspiration from another source.
“It was Daddy,” she said.
Contact James Beaty at email@example.com.