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Audubon's lease: all pomp, no circumstance 

Nonprofit learns Housing Authority never sought approval.

A federal audit throws into question whether Audubon Arkansas actually has claim to 68 acres leased for the site of a multimillion dollar nature center. The audit, released last week, says the Little Rock Housing Authority, which held a public lease-signing ceremony with the head of the National Audubon Society last March, had no right to execute such a lease. The land in question is the site of the former Booker Homes low-income housing project, just north of Gillam Park. The crime-plagued project was leveled several years ago. Audubon's lease was for 99 years at $1 a year for the acreage, which is adjacent to the Fourche Creek watershed and Gillam Park's unique wooded uplands. Ken Smith, director of Audubon Arkansas, said Tuesday he was surprised to learn that Audubon actually had no lease. He said he'd been called by Lee Jones, head of the Housing Authority, some time back when Jones learned of the audit's preliminary findings. The audit, however, will have no affect on Audubon's plans to put a nature center in the Gillam Park area. The city of Little Rock is moving to condemn the 400-acre Gillam Park in preparation to lease the land to Audubon. If the lease with the Housing Authority is not approved, the city could seek to condemn its 68 acres, also. Audubon - which has also had to deal with encroachment from the south, in the form of a bid by Granite Mountain Quarries to take a chunk of Gillam Park for its own use - planned to build the nature center on the 68 acres it thought was properly leased from the Housing Authority. If that land does not become available to Audubon, "anywhere in Gillam Park would be a great site" for the center. Auditors say a portion of the land is deed-restricted for low-income housing, and suggests Audubon renegotiate a lease on only the unrestricted portion of the property. Ten acres in the southeast corner of the Booker Homes site, originally 78 acres, has already been set aside for low-income housing. In a December response to a draft of the audit, the LRHA said that it had tried to explain to auditors that while the lease had been signed, the authority had not submitted the lease for agency approval and it was not considered to be in effect. "Accordingly, the property has not yet been leased, transferred or otherwise encumbered. On the contrary, HUD's interest in the property remains. The Declaration of Trust still remains on the property restricting its use to low-income housing." The audit, by HUD's Office of Inspector General, also criticized the $1-a-year lease as a poor decision by the LRHA. If, as the LRHA informed auditors, the city of Little Rock was preparing to condemn the land for Audubon's use, it would have paid fair value of the property, proceeds of which could have been used to acquire property elsewhere for low-income housing. Either the land or the fair value should be returned to the Authority, the audit says. At one point, Smith recalled, the site was appraised at $350,000. Smith said Little Rock's proposal to condemn Gillam Park was a "fallback" for Audubon, should it lose the Booker Homes acreage. Smith's recollection was that the Housing Authority made the decision not to rebuild on the razed Booker Homes site because of the cost involved in drilling into the site's solid rock. Auditors said the Authority had argued that the site's proximity to the airport made it unsuitable for housing. If "no other wild card pops out of the deck," Smith said, Audubon plans to invest around $200,000 in rehabbing the old Granite Mountain Community Center for offices while it raises money for the nature center. If HUD directs a portion of Booker Homes to be developed as low-income housing, would Audubon still be interested in what was left of the 68 acres? Yes, Smith said; one of the nonprofit's goal is to work with diverse communities. That, and the site's unique natural attractions and its proximity to schools "meets every measure that you apply to what makes a good nature center. It exceeds it in spades."
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