Magness Lake, in Heber Springs, is a magnet for swans
Lake Maumelle watershed landowners, angered by a possible conservation easement deal between Central Arkansas Water and the chairman of the Pulaski County Planning Board, lodged complaints about a perceived conflict of interest at a CAW meeting Feb. 14.
CAW has a deal in the works with planning board chair Ray Vogelpohl for a conservation easement on his 335-acre horse ranch that would restrict development on the land. CAW, which has never before paid for a conservation easement, has allocated $500,000 for that purpose in its 2013 capital projects budget, money that could potentially go directly to Vogelpohl from funds raised from landowners' 45-cents-per-month watershed management fee.
CAW officials have stressed that the deal, which has been in negotiation for five years, was not yet official and that the $500,000 was a placeholder, as they do not yet have a firm figure for the proposed easement. An appraisal completed last month valued the easement at more than $800,000.
Vogelpohl has been on the county planning board since 2006. He is the only member of the board who owns land in the watershed. He has been a supporter of 2008 subdivision regulations that placed some limits on development in the watershed, as well as the land-use ordinance that would impose stricter zoning regulations on landowners and developers set for a vote by the Pulaski County Quorum Court later this month. Both have been met with strong protests from landowners, while environmental groups have complained that the rules do not go far enough to protect the watershed.
Three of a group of about 10 landowners spoke at the CAW meeting, complaining that the potential easement deal had the appearance of impropriety. They also said that no one had been in touch with them about easement deals on their land.
Barbara Penney, who owns land north of Lake Maumelle, said that she had never been approached by any member of CAW asking about the watershed and had only learned about the easement deal on television. "This is a terribly important conflict of interest," she said. "[Vogelpohl] has always professed to represent his community but in the meantime ... he was negotiating for personal gain."
Details of the easement deal came to light via Freedom of Information Act requests from landowner Lorie White, who has been an active critic of the land-use ordinance. "It's kind of ridiculous that's been kept secret," she said at the meeting. "He is the planning board chairman, he is a property owner in the watershed, and he is possibly going to get half a million dollars or more for this easement. Why was that kept under wraps?" She also complained that CAW had been less than fully cooperative with her FOIA requests.
Vogelpohl did recuse himself in October 2011 when the planning board unanimously recommended the land-use ordinance, sending it to the Quorum Court for approval. White contends that he only recused in response to her FOIA requests, which she made public to the media at the time. Vogelpohl's letter of recusal does not mention details of the easement deal he was pursuing for himself at the time. Emails acquired by White's FOIA requests suggest that Vogelpohl may have continued to be involved in the negotiation of the land-use ordinance after his recusal. White said after the meeting that she believed the easement deal was a quid pro quo and that CAW was essentially buying Vogelpohl's support.Vogelpohl did not respond to repeated requests for comment since we first began reporting on this story last Thursday. However, he provided the Times a letter to the Quorum Court responding to issues surrounding the easement shortly after we went to press Tuesday evening. See here.
Landowners have three main complaints:
1) They argue that because nearly two thirds of Vogelpohl's land lies in a floodplain and other portions include steep slopes, development would be prohibitively expensive. Therefore, they believe Vogelpohl is being paid handsomely not to develop land that is undevelopable.