Magness Lake, in Heber Springs, is a magnet for swans
Tall, ancient bald cypress and sycamores hug Nowlin Creek in the Maumelle River watershed in western Pulaski County, and flowers, like gayfeather and the rare soapwort gentian, grow near its shady banks. In summer, the creek runs dry, though there are deep pools in places, but it can flood in wetter seasons.
Now, developer Rick Ferguson wants to build a wastewater treatment plant — it would serve a future subdivision — that will dump up to 40,000 gallons of treated sewage into Nowlin Creek daily. Janae Day, who lives with her husband, Jimmy, on 26 acres on Nowlin Creek, says that means the creek will run with nothing but effluent in summer; when it floods, it will bring the treated water up to her barn. Because Nowlin Creek feeds the Maumelle, that treated water will also flow through Pinnacle Mountain State Park.
Last Thursday night, members of the Nowlin Creek Neighborhood Association, a group of landowners who measure their properties by the acre instead of the foot, gathered at the Days' home to hear from their lawyer about what they can do to convince the Little Rock Planning Commission to reject a Conditional Use Permit application that would allow construction of the plant. The commission will consider the CUP at its meeting at 4 p.m. Thursday, July 14, at City Hall. Ferguson's application to build the Mountain Valley subdivision, which will place 134 50-foot-wide lots on 36 acres, will be considered separately; it will go before the commission in August.
The Nowlin Creek area is outside the city limits, but within the city's extraterritorial jurisdiction. The city exercises that jurisdiction to control development on land it may one day wish to annex. But the Pulaski County Quorum Court voted unanimously June 28 on a resolution asking Little Rock's Planning Commission to delay until March 31, 2017, approval of private wastewater treatment plants in the city's extraterritorial jurisdiction. The court approved the moratorium at the request of opponents of another private sewage treatment plant. The Trails, a proposed development of 266 homes on 154 acres along Kanis Road, would treat its wastewater and send it into Fletcher Creek, which feeds into the Little Maumelle. Trails developer Wayne "Oz" Richie applied last year for a CUP from the Planning Commission. Staff recommended against it, and after questions were raised about how the treatment plant would function, he withdrew the CUP request, deciding to first get a permit to build the plant from the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality. That permit is pending.
Ferguson, however, went first to the ADEQ for a permit for the wastewater plant. The ADEQ informed him in June that it would not act on his plant permit application until the Planning Commission issues a CUP for the plant. It's unclear why Ferguson was asked to get a CUP for the permit process to go forward when Richie was not; a spokesman for the agency maintained the applications were treated the same.
City Director Gene Fortson, who was invited to the meeting last week but could not attend, said he had concerns about the construction of private treatment plants, though he believes they have good operational records. "But I want to know a little bit more. I want to know about what the Health Department and the ADEQ say."
Fortson said he also wanted to talk to a Quorum Court member or County Judge Barry Hyde about the resolution, which should eventually be discussed by the City Board. Fortson also said the city should perhaps develop policy that would broaden the Planning Commission's regulations on extraterritorial development, perhaps allowing them to consider environmental effects of development.
Property owners are concerned not only about what will be dumped into the creek, which The Nature Conservancy described as a "high quality stream" in an assessment for the county waste management district, but how the plant will be operated. Algae blooms have been recorded upstream on Nowlin Creek where effluent from the private Alotian golf club's treatment plant enters. Patti Hodges, the secretary of the Nowlin Creek Neighborhood Association, illustrated the algae blooms for the neighborhood gathering with photographs of Nowlin Creek above and below the Alotian plant.
Ross Noland, the lawyer working with the Nowlin Creek property owners, told the association that the residents of Mountain Valley, not the developer, will have to pay to maintain the plant. Should residents be negligent, there is a state trust fund that would provide assistance for repairs. That trust fund, which contains only $20,000, was created in 2015 under a bill by state Rep. Andy Davis (R-Little Rock) to remove "burdensome" financial requirements of permit holders. Previously, permit holders had to have insurance to cover the plant maintenance and operation and post a surety bond. Those requirements are gone. Davis is an engineer who owns a private sewage treatment plant business.
The Planning Commission staff received 30 letters opposing the plant before its publication of the agenda online last week. Nicholas and Marcia Finn wrote, "Our grandchildren play in this creek and we are tremendously concerned for their safety. The Natural Resources Conservation Services would not even allow dirt to be placed on land near the bank of the creek due to possible creek contamination, but this proposal will discharge sewage directly into the creek."
The sewage treatment plant is not the only worry regarding the Mountain Valley development. A large portion of the subdivision lies in the 100-year flood plain and plans call for it to be filled in. (That will require a permit from the U.S. Corps of Engineers.) The higher ground would mean Nowlin Creek floodwaters on the opposite bank — onto property along Hood Road, like the Days' — will reach a higher level. Janae Day, who led guests last week on a bush-hogged path alongside the creek, pointed to debris several feet up the bank to show how high floodwaters have gotten recently. "I really don't want to sell this place," Day said. "I want to be buried here." But she fears effluent-filled water will erode her property.
Runoff from the densely developed subdivision, which will turn what is now a meadow into a paved neighborhood, also worries Tom Frothingham, who lives east of the development on Pleasant Grove Road. Frothingham is concerned about traffic as well; a plat for the development shows only two exits: one on Cantrell Road and the other on Pleasant Grove, a narrow two-lane that intersects Cantrell.
Also attending the neighborhood meeting was Sheriff Doc Holliday, who lived in nearby Roland until he was 5 and who told the group, "We support you; you are part of our community. We're involved with you because you're here." There was a millennial there as well; she looked at the plat and asked, "Where's the market for this development? You can't walk anywhere."
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