Fight continues on Capitol Zoning Commission | Arkansas Blog

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Fight continues on Capitol Zoning Commission

Posted By on Thu, Apr 28, 2016 at 7:28 AM

click to enlarge SEN. JEREMY HUTCHINSON:  Defends assault on zoning agency.
  • SEN. JEREMY HUTCHINSON: Defends assault on zoning agency.
A Joint Budget vote is scheduled this morning and historic preservation groups have been lining up solidly to oppose the "special language" amendment proposed by Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson to kill the Capitol Zoning District Commission and transfer its work to the Arkansas Department of Heritage.

The Downtown Little Rock Neighborhood Association was among several groups sending notices last night to members to attend the Joint Budget meeting this morning. It joined the Quapaw Quarter Association, Preserve Arkansas and others.

Rumbles associated with this fight include some of the real reasons for the unhappiness. Hutchinson swears one is not the enforcement heat brought on a lobbyist and businessman for renovation of a Capitol Avenue office building that reportedly failed to get the proper building permit or install required sprinklers for dwellings above commercial space. I'm awaiting documentation of a reliable report on this before more specifics. Hutchinson, too, contends a graphic I posted yesterday illustrating the overwhelming approval given Capitol Zoning applications is misleading because the process is a hassle before approval.

Hutchinson disputed gubernatorial budget chief Duncan Baird's opinion yesterday that substantive legislation such as this requires a two-thirds authorizing vote before consideration in a fiscal session. "We only put special language necessary to transfer the funds [about $240,000] and save the state money," he wrote. "That's the exact purpose of special language isn't it? " Actually, subterfuge and avoidance of real legislative debate are the purposes of special language.

A lawsuit to test Hutchinson on the point seems likely if he kills the agency. And a meaningful state savings after creating new jobs and duties in Heritage seems a stretch.

This is not the only run at substantive law change masked in the special language deliberation — a subversion of the legislative process. If there's a debate to be had about the state law that created a separate zoning agency specifically for the purpose of protecting the Capitol and the Governor's Mansion from poorly developed neighborhoods, then let's have that debate straight up, not through budget trickery.

Apart from Rep. Charles Blake and Sen. Joyce Elliott, where is the Little Rock delegation and city leadership on this? Mayor Stodola has said transferring the work to Little Rock wouldn't happen. Mission accomplished. The city is off the hook after Hutchinson changed an initial proposal to keep the work in state government. But that's not good enough. The agency should be preserved.

Another potential amendment is in the wings — to preserve the agency but add an appeals process to an administrative arm of the Heritage Department. As yet, though, it's not on the table. Little Rock legislators fighting this bill want a meaningful standard of review that said the agency director needed good cause to reverse a commission decision. Questions are raised whether taking away the ability to go to circuit court amounts to an infringement of due process on property rights.

It's a mess. It's clearly a substantive debate. It shouldn't be happening in a fiscal session. But it is. Over and over.

UPDATE: Hutchinson has also come up with a proposal to preserve the commission but allow appeals to a legislative committee. This would be the worst possible politicizing of the agency. Imagine the case of the failure to get a permit for a rehab of a building housing a lobby firms' pool hall/ lounge on Capitol Avenue?  
Appealing to the legislature for approval after the fact for unpermitted renovations and an unpermitted business designed to entertain them?

UPDATE: Little Rock legislators have wrung a compromise out of Hutchinson, who won't let go of messing with the agency. It is the Commission survives at least until 2017, but appeals of its decision will go to the director of the Heritage Department, not circuit court. The director may reverse only "clearly erroneous decisions." Sen. David Johnson crafted this workout.

He expected a vote in Joint Budget this afternoon.

UPDATE: The amendment failed, with a small contingent on hand. Only 13 votes for the amendment, needing twice that. Does that mean the status quo will prevail? Will see next week if the appropriation bill, without amendment, goes back to the floor.

Hutchinson also said a full debate on the future of the agency will occur in 2017.

UPDATE: Kathy Wells of the Downtown Neighborhood Association reports on today's action. Note that now Rep. Nate Bell, who's had an inexplicable mad-on against the agency for years, will make his run at abolishing an agency that has nothing to do with his district. The fight is now fully joined at least.
attended Joint Budget Committee of the Ark. General Assembly this afternoon and saw defeat of proposed shift in operation of the Capitol Zoning District Commission, so that Heritage Dept. Director would get appeals from Commission decisions. The agency remains as is - for now.

The vote was 13 yes; 9 no; 29 yes votes required for passage.

Boyd Maher, director of CZDC, answered questions and invited specifics on complaints so he might address them. Carol Worley, resident and commercial property owner in the District, spoke in support of the agency.

Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, the sponsor, moderated the legislative shift from earlier today, when the agency would be moved wholesale into the Heritage Dept.

Hutchinson had a friendly visit with supporters of the agency after adjournment, and said that a formal abolition of the agency was sought by Rep. Nate Bell, who held off action to let Hutchinson act first. Now, he said, we may expect a vigorous effort by Bell to attach his abolition amendment to the agency budget, which still is pending. Bell leaves office Dec. 31st., so this session is his final time to get bills passed.

The Hutchinson amendment was changed in discussions with legislators supporting continuation of the agency, and those discussions will continue over the weekend.

A new passage attempt may come next week, Hutchinson said, and if that passes, that means Bell will not pursue his abolition amendment.

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