Monday, June 18, 2012

Farm Bureau prepares for battle on Lake Maumelle

Posted By on Mon, Jun 18, 2012 at 7:39 PM

We weren't able to attend. But clean water activist Kathy Wells joined Central Arkansas Water officials at a meeting today at which the Arkansas Farm Bureau made clear what was already apparent — it will fight zoning in the Lake Maumelle basin to the last driveway. It claims to have the ironically named Arkansas Natural Resources Commission (once known even more ironically as Soil and Water Conservation) on its side, but that agency has typically served as an enabler for farmers, not the public at large.

Between Farm Bureau, the Koch bros., who've been fighting the zoning proposal, and powerful Deltic Timber, the biggest landowner in the watershed, I'd suggest it's time for County Judge Buddy Villines to call the roll. Delay of more than a few weeks will be death to this zoning ordinance. Each day that passes is another day for the lobbyists to fill pliant Quorum Court members with reasons to vote against protection of Central Arkansas's water supply, contrary to the public interest though it would be.

I'll turn it over to Kathy's report to the Coalition of Greater Little Rock Neighborhoods:

MEMO TO CGLRN

Ruth Bell of the Pul. Co. League of Women Voters and Kathy Wells of the Coalition of Greater LR Neighborhoods met today with Beau Bishop of the Arkansas Farm Bureau, advocate for its members in the Maumelle Watershed, as well as Kent Walker, attorney for the organized small landowners group.

Central Ark. Water sent Robert Hart and its attorney advisor, Thad Bohannon. Jake Sandlin of the Ark. Democrat also attended, as did two others from the Farm Bureau.

Bishop invited Wells and other water-protection advocates to state to them Farm Bureau concerns about the pending county ordinance that would regulate development in the Watershed, which drains downhill into Lake Maumelle, our drinking-water reservoir. No public discussion has occurred in recent weeks, though many private meetings have been held, by all accounts, and no new draft ordinance has come from county planning officials.

Last Thursday, Graham Rich, Ex. Dir. Of CAW, informed his Commission members that a new study of the water was being sought by the Bureau, and that was published in the Ark. Times blog. That raised the prospect nothing would be put into place for another two years, or more, if all was delayed for a new study to be performed.

All await the USGS updated model of samples and forecasts of future changes in Maumelle Watershed, now said to be expected in August. The Pul. Co. Quorum Court tabled the ordinance in hand in January to await this new report – a correction to a previous study that was discovered to have flaws. This position remained despite a January letter to the Quorum Court from USGS that said nobody should use their report in preparing a zoning ordinance. Opponents of the proposal have cited the USGS work as a counter to the water-utility studies and policy requests, several of which already have been enacted into county ordinances on new subdivision approvals, runoff regulations, etc.

The 75-minute meeting only skimmed the surface of this complex proposed policy in all its variations. Bishop confirmed he was awaiting more information from scientists about water-quality studies that might be sought by the Farm Bureau. Pressed to say why the Bureau discounted the ordinance and its basis from the current Tetra Tech model procured by the water utility, he replied: “This would punish the people who kept the lake clean, with restrictions on what they can do with their land.”

He declined to agree with Bell’s assertion that zoning typically has raised property values, as have Open Space requirements to provide for green space in subdivisions. Nor did he agree with the comment that zoning offers the best protection for the lifestyle of current residents of the Watershed.

Asked why the Bureau discounted the current proposed ordinance, Bishop replied Bureau members had no assurance that their new construction would, in fact, be mitigated. He conceded the point by Wells that the original group of community leaders endorsing the policy proposed to manage development around the water reservoir did allow for some construction by current property owners, and offset their future development by means of forest acres to be bought by the utility and kept undeveloped. Both agreed the utility was to buy 1,500 acres for that purpose, and did in fact buy extra land in addition to that amount. She asked utility officials to work on added language that would reassure owners getting that offset credit for their new construction.

However, Bishop was critical of the apparent limits in the utility calculation to decide what amount of land was needed to offset likely construction by current landowners, which came to a house of 10,000 square feet. Utility officials noted that was stated in the current proposed Watershed Zoning Ordinance, and further, that a driveway of 4,500 square feet was to be credited. Bishop raised the prospect that if a property owned built 11,000 square feet, that owner would be forced into the complicated regulations designed for new subdivisions.

Walker added objections to the permanence of any Open Space property, which he said would be binding upon successive purchasers of property in the Watershed.

They stated objections to any restrictions on landowners without compensation, to a supposed loss in value of property due to imposition of a zoning code, and to the lack of any benefit to owners from passage of the ordinance, since nobody would be supplied with water from this utility in any event.

They suggested immediate passage of the items of general agreement, including a ban on Prohibited Uses, such as medical-waste landfills in the Watershed, and a delay to work on contested features.

Wells said that was contrary to the political advice from Co. Judge Floyd (Buddy) Villines, who has said all along there would be only one ordinance voted on regulating the Watershed to protect the water reservoir, in light of practical politics. Any new effort to regulate development to protect Lake Maumelle would be many years coming, he has said repeatedly. That led her to be reluctant to any effort to divide regulations into segments, she told Bishop. She added that today the lake was clean, so regulations should be put in place to keep it clean; a delay meant possible pollution coming into the lake.

All asked Bishop why a new study of water samples was wanted, and he said because the Bureau was still collecting information about this issue, to which it came late. He said two sources told him the science was insufficient as a basis for these regulations, so he wanted more information. He said he expected word from a U-A expert, Dr. Darmenhdra Saraswat, in a couple of weeks about a possible study and its cost and features. He was also relying on Randy Young, head of the Ark. Natural Resources Commission, Bishop added, and he had gotten information from the U-A Cooperative Extension Service.

Overall, there was open skepticism any government regulations would be good for property owners, and doubt these would be applied as stated. Distrust was evident.

Utility officials defended the previous work of hiring Tetra Tech, and using a local technical advisory committee to determine what their study was to cover – drawing from various models in the scientific community. They asked the Bureau for specific defects in this model and its applications; Bishop said that was premature.

Water-protection advocates maintained their support for getting regulations in place against excessive development that threatens to pollute our drinking-water supply, without delay. Polluted water will result in a mandated new treatment plant, a burden on all water customers of CAW.

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