A Norman City Council runoff next week will determine who voters believe can best block urban encroachment into a mostly rural ward whose citizens are already fighting against a planned turnpike that would uproot some homes near Lake Thunderbird.
The April 4 election pits Ward 5 City Councilman Rarchar Tortorello in a rematch against his predecessor, former Councilman Michael Nash. Tortorello defeated Nash’s bid for election in 2021 after Nash had been appointed to fill an unexpired term.
This election may be increasingly important to Ward 5, which consists of the east half of Norman’s city limits, with its country acreages and farmland a likely target for future urban development.
City leaders are about to amend an existing land use plan to account for future population growth. Norman had more than 15 percent population growth recorded by the last federal census, making it and Edmond the fastest-growing major cities in Oklahoma.
Both Tortorello and Nash believe the composition of the upcoming mayor-appointed 2045 Land Use Plan Committee, which will consider whether zoning changes are needed to accommodate Norman’s urban sprawl, could have a particularly significant impact on Ward 5 residents.
“I would like to see more diversity and more people in Ward 5 who own farms (on the committee),” Tortorello said.
He said most residents in east Norman live there because of the rural location, situated among the Cross Timbers and red dirt hills that surround Lake Thunderbird.
A Texas-based housing developer’s current plan to build a mixed single-family and multifamily housing development near Highway 9 and Southeast 48th Street is an example of urban encroachment in the ward, he said.
“I swore an oath to protect Ward 5 from high density development. I will vote no against this development in its current form,” Tortorello said.
Urban encroachment into Ward 5 in east Norman is a topic the two candidates generally agree upon. Nash said the issue affects the entire city, however, because it is a matter of protecting the city’s primary water supply, Lake Thunderbird, from pollution.
“The entire area needs to stay rural. Not just for preservation of the settings of people’s homes, but to protect the watershed. Every drop of water that falls in Ward 5 goes into Lake Thunderbird,” Nash said.
He said paving over green spaces will cause herbicide and other pollutant-laden runoff to flow into the lake.
“What it comes down to is, which candidate do voters think will be most effective at stopping inappropriate development that’s high density — these big pushes to put high-density neighborhoods, commercial strips, through Ward 5? Who would be most effective at protecting our water supply?” asked Nash.
Tortorello at odds with some developers’ plans
Tortorello is a retired Air Force veteran who has lived in east Norman since 2004.
He and Norman City Councilman Kelly Lynn were two candidates elected in 2021 with the support of the controversial Unite Norman political group, an organization formed to counter what its members believed were liberals controlling the City Council.
Lynn lost his bid for reelection to the City Council on Feb. 14. Tortorello was forced into next week’s runoff against Nash, whom he defeated in 2021.
The risk of urban growth in Ward 5 poses a particularly interesting situation for Tortorello, as his conservative politics would seemingly place him on the side of developers in the growth vs. no-growth political battle that has marked Norman city politics for decades.
Tortorello said developers are often unfairly demonized. But the potential intrusion of dense housing development into Ward 5 has Tortorello at odds with some developers’ plans. He said that although he has received campaign contributions from local home developers, his allegiance is to residents of his ward.
“Just because I receive donor money from certain groups, special interest groups, it doesn’t mean that I am in their pocket,” Tortorello said. “I’ve always stated, like when I ran the first time, it’s what benefits Ward 5, first.”
Tortorello said a town hall meeting of developers and Norman residents, including those wary of development, should be held to solve a growing housing shortage in the city. He said the solution is for in-fill development within the current footprint of urban areas in Norman — not in the rural areas of his ward — and that may take a change in the mindset of developers.
“Where are we going to grow? I just don’t think enough developers have looked at all the different possibilities. Can we utilize the empty spaces in core Norman? The infills of core Norman? There are a lot of opportunities for that,” Tortorello said. “I just don’t want, by default, Ward 5 to be the whipping boy to say that we get the development because there is nothing out there.”
Nash is suspicious of Tortorello’s statements because of his support in 2021 from Unite Norman, which was operated in part by a local home developer. But Nash said he agrees with the idea that housing development in core Norman is a better answer.
“People argue that Norman can only expand east. I would argue Norman can expand up. The same thing we’re seeing around campus, where you are seeing single-family homes being reconstructed into multifamily homes and apartments. There are plenty of ways to grow a city up without growing a city out,” Nash said. “If the contractors are pissed off that they can’t throw 500 new homes out there in Ward 5, then they should rethink their business model.”
Nash faces issue about police funding vote
Nash is a mechanical engineer who operates a research company that has developed a midstream pipeline leak-detection system. He also is a co-owner of the soon-to-be-reopened Pinocchio’s, an iconic Norman college-town restaurant. A Marine veteran who served in Afghanistan, Nash represented Ward 5 when he was appointed to the council in 2020 to fill an unexpired term.
Nash’s previous tenure on the council has given Tortorello campaign ammunition. Tortorello said the biggest difference that separates the two was demonstrated by Nash’s vote in 2021 to ratify a municipal budget that reduced a planned police department funding increase.
“He voted to defund the police,” Tortorello said of Nash.
Nash said the budget ratification vote, which included moving some of the police department’s requested funding increase to a mental health response team, was for the best use of taxpayer money to address problems rather than just to increase the number of police officers.
He said to label him anti-police is an untruth, and he said his previous support for increased funding for police gear, police software, salaries and support for the school resource officer program proves his support for police.
“I don’t think we’re having these problems seen across the country. But if we think we can address our police needs by throwing a high quantity of low-quality officers at them, then we’re going to start having problems,” Nash said. “If instead, we are taking care of the officers we have, get them competitive salaries, get them competitive pay so we are retaining the best and keep our entrance requirements to the academy higher, then one statistic that stands out across the country is that when you have a higher starting salary for officers you have a lower rate of use-of-force outcomes with police interactions.”
Nash said he had not planned to run again for his former City Council seat. His name was put on the ballot as a result of a citizen petition drive, a unique process provided for in the city’s charter.
“It’s very endearing that your hometown feels that strongly that you need to represent them,” Nash said.
He said he was emboldened to go through with the candidacy after seeing a social media backlash from Tortorello’s supporters, which later escalated into phone calls and texts.
“The backlash was swift. ‘How dare I challenge him?’” Nash said. “It got real dark, real dirty. The harder the backlash was and continues to be, the more conviction I had that this was the right decision to make.”
Both candidates oppose proposed turnpike expansion
Nash and Tortorello agree that the proposed turnpike through Norman’s Ward 5 is a bad idea, and both are vocal advocates against the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority’s 15-year $5 billion ACCESS Oklahoma project expanding the turnpike system.
Nash founded the anti-turnpike group Pike Off OTA and served as its president prior to running for office. Tortorello voted with all councilpersons for a city resolution opposing the turnpike and supported the city’s hiring of outside legal counsel to file an amicus brief in a lawsuit brought by Pike Off OTA opposing the authority’s $500 million bond issue to fund the project.
Nash said the City of Norman could do more to oppose the turnpike, including the construction of strategically placed storm runoff retention ponds in the path of the proposed turnpike route that could strengthen the city’s legal argument that it has a duty to protect the lake watershed.
“It’s a hard line in the sand for me. No alternative routes are going to be acceptable. No turnpike acceptable, period,” Nash said.
Although both candidates have had strong words in opposition of the turnpike, Nash said he believes Tortorello is using the turnpike issue as a scare tactic and accused the incumbent of focusing his door-knocking campaign on homes in the proposed path of the turnpike.
“It feels wrong to think in any way these people’s homes are being used as props in a political theater,” Nash said. “This is a guy at the last Pike OFF fundraiser who was out in the parking lot handing out signs for his campaign. God help us if he does ever have any serious position that we are depending on for him to block turnpikes,” Nash said.
But Tortorello said the turnpike matter is the No. 1 issue in his ward. And, he said, the overwhelming support for the anti-turnpike group from both Republican and Democratic legislators and municipal officeholders of diverging ideology shows the turnpike is a nonpartisan issue.
He said Ward 5 residents should have hope that the nonpartisan opposition to the turnpike will result in the project being canceled or the route being moved further east of Lake Thunderbird.
“You keep the politics out of it and focus on the mission, and the mission is to stop the turnpike. If that is not successful, then to move it to a different location,” Tortorello said.
Tortorello cites accomplishments, looks to less partisanship
Tortorello said he ran in 2021 as an advocate for private property rights and to oppose the “defund the police” movement. He said he has accomplished what he set out to do, especially in returning and increasing funding to the police department.
He said he is now working on restoring bipartisanship to the City Council.
“We have a hard time sometimes putting aside our ideology,” Tortorello said. “I’ve had these conversations with the liberal members of council that it is OK for you to vote for public safety programs, just as it is OK for conservative members to vote for social programs. So, we are overcoming that slowly.”
He said he has supported a temporary warming shelter for the homeless and use of some of Norman’s American Rescue Plan Act funds to help a nonprofit serve the homeless.
Also, he said the upcoming land use plan may have to address the problem of inadequate affordable housing in Norman. He said he was concerned that increased rent and ownership costs will price service industry workers, police, firefighters and teachers out of living in Norman.
“Do we want to push out a whole class of people in favor of another class of folks here? I don’t think that’s the right approach for the city of Norman,” Tortorello said.
But Nash said he fears if Tortorello is reelected, business owners motivated by profit will get named to the upcoming land use plan committee. He said he opposes any business owners as voting members on the committee.
“Norman is not created by businesses. It is not created by the chamber of commerce. It’s created by the residents,” Nash said. “That doesn’t mean those entities cannot be non-voting members. But they should not be guiding how we decide how our city should evolve.
“At the end of the day, when it comes to high-density development, the silver bullet to shoot it down is that land use plan.”
Early voting for the municipal election began on Thursday and will continue until 6 p.m. Friday at the Cleveland County Election Board. Precinct polls in Ward 5 will be open Tuesday from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
(Correction: This article was updated at 3:22 p.m. Friday, March 31, to correct reference to Michael Nash’s position with Pike Off OTA.)