The committee trying to build a wastewater treatment plant on 18 acres in West Little Rock is still fighting a game of “rope a dope,” as a member of the Sewer Committee put it.
At a Sept. 7 meeting, committee member Pat Miller explained: Now in Round 4 of the effort to buy land on which to build a plant to serve West Little Rock, the committee again finds itself backed into a corner — this time by demands from the seller — Gene Pfeifer — that the Little Rock Wastewater Utility build the access road to the plant along a route he plans for a future residential development. The committee, originally informed the road would cost around half a million dollars, was stunned when it got the estimated tab for the road at the meeting: $3.7 million. A project that once was projected to cost $15,000 an acre was now $250,000 an acre.
And because Pfeifer won’t let the road be used permanently by the utility, another access road, estimated to cost $500,000, from West Pinnacle Road to the north side of the site, will have to be built — making the estimated cost for road work to the $19 million plant around $4 million.
The tab left member Dale Wintroath calling for an end to negotiations with Pfeifer and condemnation of the land, 18 acres east of state Highway 300 and north of Highway 10. What some committee members perceive as add-ons to the purchase agreement — including also a demand that the utility provide sewer hook-ups without charge to the eventual residents of the development — suggested to Wintroath, he said, that Pfeifer was not “negotiating in good faith.”
But Vice Mayor Barbara Graves, a non-voting member of the committee and likely candidate for mayor in 2006, hammered utility chief Reggie Corbitt with questions about why progress toward an agreement initiated in April had been so slow. “All parties want the right thing,” she insisted.
Now, at the committee’s request, City Manager Bruce Moore is handling negotiations between Pfeifer and his lawyer and Corbitt. The committee has given him 60 days to hammer out a deal.
Hal Kemp, Pfeifer’s lawyer, declined to comment except to say that “I do think we’ll come to an agreement.”
And in voting to bring in Moore to mediate, the committee sent a message that it will make more concessions to Pfeifer. “What I’d like to see happen is that treatment facility be built on that location,” Moore said.
Plans to purchase Pfeifer’s land have been on the table since April, when the committee surprised the neighbors of the site, previously rejected, by choosing it over land previously called “ideal” near the upscale Ranch development. Several drafts of the contract have gone back and forth between the utility and Pfeifer since.
“The guys at sewer are terrific, but there’s so much politicking and people and personal things,” sewer committee member Miller said later.
The LRWU must, as a settlement of a lawsuit filed against it by the Sierra Club over overflows, build a new plant by 2007. It is behind schedule in purchasing land for the site. Over the past two years, several site proposals have been knocked down, the most recent a plan to put the site near the Ranch development on Highway 10. Pfeifer, who owns that site, said he would not surrender without a court fight. (That would be Round 3. Round 2 was Pinnacle Valley farmland; Round 1 was Two Rivers Park.) Pfeifer offered to sell the 18-acre site to the utility.
At ringside, and tossing tomatoes, are the members of the Pinnacle Neighborhood Association, who believe the choice of their backyard over the Ranch’s was a slap in the face. The association spokesperson, Mary Dornhoffer, says it will sue if the latest preferred site is purchased.
Graves was clearly irritated at the Sept. 7 meeting that the $3.7 million estimate on road construction came at the “11th hour” and said that the committee was rushing to condemn Pfeifer’s property after dragging its feet on reaching an agreement. She questioned Corbitt why, for example, Pfeifer’s land had not yet been formally appraised. Committee chair Stuart Mackey, a realtor, responded for Corbitt that since Pfeifer had already agreed on a price for the land, the appraisal wasn’t necessary until the purchase.
Graves was also skeptical about the projected cost of the road, $2 million of which would be used in the last 1,000 feet, a steep hairpin curve into the plant site. “Are we building a four-lane road with lights?” she asked the committee. Later, she told a reporter that the figure “seemed steep to me for a haul road.”
Pfeifer’s latest draft for a contract states that the utility will shoulder the costs of building ingress through his property, provide free sewer hookups to current and future residents of his development adjacent the plant, build an 8-inch water line through the property and allow free tie-ons, and pick up his attorneys fees, since the contract was being drawn up “under the threat of condemnation.” In response, the utility offered a draft that omits the road and free sewer hookups, which it estimates could cost it more than $300,000.
The Wastewater Utility had earlier estimated the building cost for a road across Pfeifer’s land — a 10,600-foot road that follows the road plan of Pfeifer’s Northwest Territories development — at $500,000 to $600,000. Plant engineers Camp Dresser & McKee Inc. provided the new figures hours before the Sept. 7 meeting.
Last year, when the committee got bogged down by opposition to the site near The Ranch, Corbitt warned that the utility might have to impose a moratorium on new hookups unless progress was made.
Corbitt has assured committee members that even though the land hasn’t been purchased, the utility continues to make progress on the plant and is close to deciding on a final design. CDM will present the committee with four or five construction options and costs at its next meeting Oct. 19.
No money has been set aside to build the plant. Corbitt said the utility will ask the city to authorize a bond issue once the bids on the plant have come in and a firmer price is known. He said sewer rate increases to pay off the bonds probably won’t be requested until 2007.
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