Arkansas’s first environmental education state park interprets the importance of the natural world and our place within it.
Residents of the North Hills and Eastgate neighborhoods of North Little Rock planned to sue in federal court this week to stop construction on the Shoppes at North Hills retail complex. Guy Choate and Jeffrey Rickman are asking the court to invalidate a permit issued by the Corps of Engineers to Belz-Burrow of Jonesboro and for an injunction against the company.
Bruce Burrow, who with MBC Holdings partner Marty Belz is developing the site, said the partnership will close on the land purchase this week. They plan to build the $150 million retail center on 200 acres south of Interstate 30 at North Hills Boulevard. Bass Pro Shop is to be the major tenant at the Shoppes.
The lawsuit claims the Corps didn't adequately assess the threat to the environment the development poses to the 35 acres of wetland Belz-Burrow will build on. That includes threats posed by new road construction to the site and increased traffic on the already congested U.S. Highway 67/167, Interstate 40 and I-30 interchanges.
North Little Rock's City Council approved a $100,000 contract last week with Garver and Garver Engineers to design new highway access from the north to the Shoppes at North Hills. The city proposes to build an access road south off Highway 67/167 parallel to the existing road that passes the Foothills Apartments. The new road would loop below the apartments and west through undeveloped wetlands to connect to North Hills Boulevard with a roundabout at Skyline Drive. The road would also connect to the existing frontage road that runs east-west north of I-40.
The work is projected to cost $8 million, and is the first phase of construction to provide access to the Shoppes; North Hills south of I-40 would be widened to four lanes in the future.
Mayor Patrick Hays told the Times last week that he's not sure how the city will pay for road construction, but he expects to get the Council's OK to apply $2 million from a capital projects reserve fund toward financing. Hays said he hoped — but wasn't sure — that Burrow would kick in some dollars. The state Highway and Transportation Department will work with the city to create an acceptable plan, but will not pay for any of the work, a department spokesman said last week.
Hays said he believed residents of the area were “generally supportive” but noted that the road plans are pretty new. He said he had heard “a few voices of concern” ove a proposed intersection with Waterside Drive, now dropped.
North Little Rock will have to get a permit from the Corps before it can build the road.
Richard Mays, plaintiffs' attorney, previously sued in federal court on behalf of the Audubon Society of Central Arkansas and other conservation interests in 2006. District Judge George Howard dismissed the suit, saying the plaintiffs lacked standing to sue. The issues did not get a hearing.
“The people up in North Hills have no idea what's going to hit them,” Mays said. “There will be cars lined up bumper to bumper up to McCain Boulevard.” He said the added lighting on the roads will also negatively impact the residential areas near the road. North Hills is one of three main routes into the North Hills and Lakewood neighborhoods.
Plaintiffs note that the Corps' own assessment is that traffic on the northbound frontage road along the Eastgate development south of I-40 will increase 20-fold once the Shoppes project is complete.
The largely undeveloped Dark Hollow area is notorious for flooding. Rain creates standing water all along North Hills Boulevard. The Corps of Engineers had asked Belz-Burrow to move its site to higher ground south of the acreage, but developers said that would impair visibility of the site from the interstate.
The area is drained by the “Big Ditch,” which runs through the western portion of the land Belz-Burrow will develop and drains the hilly areas of North Little Rock north of the I-30 and I-40 interchange. The ditch eventually feeds into the Arkansas River via the Redwood Tunnel. The lawsuit criticizes the Corps for not including in its assessment its own studies of the inadequacy of the Redwood Tunnel, which was built in the early 1900s and which the Corps has previously identified as contributing to flooding in the Dark Hollow area.
Hays brushed off the description of the land Belz-Burrow would build on as a wetland. “That area was row crops before the interstate. It's really not a wetland,” he said last week. He conceded that drainage from the area is slow.
Belz-Burrow has agreed to mitigate the loss of wetlands, which it estimates to be 35 acres, with a “themed” wetland park on close to 100 wooded acres across North Hills Boulevard from the Shoppes. Burrow told the Times last week that the Wetland Park will provide habitat for wildlife displaced by the Shoppes. He said developers have approached biologists at Arkansas State University to manage the site as a demonstration project. “We are creating something more valuable than what was there,” he said.
Burrow said MBC is also purchasing 100 acres south of the Shoppes site, property that was once a driving range, to create a saucer-shaped retention pond to alleviate flooding in the area.
Asked if MBC intended to help pay for road construction, Burrow said, “It's hard to say we would or wouldn't.”