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Do we pave paradise? 

Or put up a park and rethink development, city parks asks.

click to enlarge GOOD BUSINESS: Developer Ron Tullos says it helps his subdivision.
  • GOOD BUSINESS: Developer Ron Tullos says it helps his subdivision.

 

Here’s a question a new blog puts to residents of the City of Little Rock:

“Is biological diversity, free natural cycles, aesthetics, spiritual, healthy and self-sustaining environments for us and future generations important to us? Should we treat the land with humility, reverence, mystery, wonder and awe?”

The question is not posed by the Sierra Club or Greenpeace but by the Little Rock Parks and Recreation Department, on its new Open Space blog at www.lrpr.org, and Parks is looking for an answer from residents, whatever it might be. The public can address the subject also at a public hearing to be held from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday, April 12, at the Dunbar Community Center, Chester and 16th streets.

The “Open Space Policy” gantlet was passed to Parks Director Truman Tolefree and Assistant Director Mark Webre by a committee appointed by former Mayor Jim Dailey. Headed up by businessman John Riggs, the committee produced a draft policy statement that calls for, among other things, an inventory of the “sensitive” lands in private and public areas of the city, the creation of incentives for private landowners to create open spaces, the development of conservation easements, and reinforcing laws already on the books that guard against flooding, erosion and degraded water quality.

So right about now, you’re thinking, sure. Little Rock, the city that laid to waste its scenic Highway 10 overlay plan with development, whose parks department strains to maintain its properties, is going to do an about-face and try to stop shaving hillsides?

Tolefree says yes — with the help of developers and the support of the public.

The open space philosophy “is not single-faceted,” Tolefree said. “It’s not the preservation of trees for erosion control alone or [keeping] natural streams or setting aside pristine lands, but a holistic approach.”

Streams, views, plants — what do developers care? “But if we’ve got an open space policy in place, Mark could say, stop knocking the trees down,” Tolefree said.

Trees and hillsides fall, however, into the domain of the planning and public works departments, which enforce the city’s landscape ordinances. Tolefree and Webre said those departments may eventually be the torch-carriers of the policy.

But the policy will also promote restoring and adding park lands and changing the way parks are maintained. “We need to stop mowing our parks over every inch,” Webre said. “We need to let parts go native,” to make the open space healthier for wildlife, allow native plants to return ... and reduce upkeep costs. “But the public does not understand that,” he said. “That’s looked on as not maintaining the parks.”

Parks has already dipped a toe into a project that supplanted an older environmentally unfriendly design with a natural one. The Swaggerty Park project, a $750,000 project to enlarge and improve the South End park adjacent to the Thrasher Boys and Girls Club, included freeing Swaggerty Creek from its 1974 concrete channel into a rocky Ouachita stream with natural plants growing in and along it. It did so at the request of residents in the neighborhood near Interstate Park and the Arch Street Pike and used a variety of funding sources, including one providing aid to neighborhoods struck by the 1999 tornado.

Tolefree and Webre confess “open space” is fuzzy phraseology. It’s a way to let Little Rock’s natural setting — the Ouachita foothills moving into the Fourche Creek lowlands — show through. Instead of chain-link fenced culverts, creeks that absorb water more slowly and avoid erosion. Instead of moving hillsides, building on them. Instead of cutting down all the trees and planting seedlings back, it’s preserving a wooded landscape that is more than just a nod to buffer.

Ideas from the public hearings and the Open Space committee’s draft (also online at the parks site) will go to the Parks Commission to help its members write policy.

John Riggs, head of the Open Space committee, called the policy “progressive,” and added: “I wouldn’t agree it’s unlikely to happen. You can craft a plan as long as you take into consideration needs of the stakeholders.”

Riggs said incentives, like tax credits and conservation easements, rather than “taking” land, were the way to go.

Riggs said a lot of the ideas for the plan came from Baker Kurrus, who with the Winrock Group is developing the Woodlands Edge neighborhood. Designed by partner Ronald Tyne, who has a background in forestry, the Woodlands Edge property is 60 percent development, 40 percent natural. It’s a percentage Tyne said is unique in the Little Rock market, and one he said can make a developer more money than building on every square inch of property.

Woodlands Edge, which now has about 250 homes, is bisected by an entry road that has no homes facing it and has been left in woods. Walking paths and boardwalks over wet areas through woods replace sidewalks in part of the development, and utilities have been laid under the paths and in roundabouts that direct traffic into the various subdivisions of the neighborhood. Rather than use trapezoidal concrete troughs to channel runoff, the area’s natural streams have been left, channeled only under streets. The retention pond required to keep downstream land from flooding isn’t even visible to the unlearned eye: It’s a second-growth field with an almost invisible dam. A lake, called Hidden Pond, is being built from Payne Branch in a low point to further collect runoff. Homes are built largely along the ridges, with the drainages left wooded.

“We’ve got every furry mammal out here,” Tyne said, looking over an area that will remain meadow as future building comes up around it.

Tyne has worked with builders to protect trees and natural areas, which are fenced off with orange plastic netting. He said contractors are still “learning” about how to build a home without clearing the lot.

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