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Street fight, round two 

It's extra innings for a battle between the residents of a West Little Rock neighborhood and real estate developer Deltic Timber. At issue: whether a proposed street extension should go through, and what kind of development will be on it if it does.

Residents say the expansion and rezoning of nearby property owned by Deltic would send hundreds more cars per day down their quiet street, along with increased danger, noise and light.

A proposed expansion of Beckenham Drive and Wellington Plantation Drive would connect the streets to nearby Rahling Road. Residents along Beckenham say the extension would make their street a “cut through” between Rahling and Hinson Road, bringing increased traffic from drivers looking for a shortcut. The city of Little Rock's master street plan has shown the proposed extension of the two streets for years now, but in May 2008, Deltic filed applications with the city that could eventually make it a reality — along with commercial and residential rezoning for just under 70 acres of undeveloped property the company owns nearby, to the east of Rahling Road. Deltic would pay for the street extension.

On Oct. 2, over the strenuous objections of the Planning Commission advisory staff, the Little Rock Planning Commission board voted 8 to 2 to approve the rezoning, master street plan and land use applications filed by Deltic. Prior to the items coming before the Little Rock Board of Directors for final approval, however, Deltic requested that the zoning and land use applications be referred back to the Planning Commission so the Commission could consider an amendment that would have changed 20 acres of the proposed development from multi-family residential zoning to “general office” zoning. When Deltic came before the Little Rock Board of Directors on Nov. 18, however, some city directors said the Planning Commission needed to act on the amendment prior to a vote by the board. When the issue came back before the Planning Commission on Feb. 5, several residents from the neighborhoods around Beckenham turned out to speak in opposition to the amendment, and Planning Commission staff reiterated their objections to the plan.

Instead of voting on only the issue of whether the 20-acre tract should be allowed to go from residential to office zoning, however, the board chose to consider the land use and zoning applications as a whole. This time, when a vote of the board was taken, the board denied both the land use and rezoning applications.

On Feb. 10, attorneys for Deltic delivered a letter of protest to Mayor Mark Stodola and City Attorney Tom Carpenter, contending that the Planning Commission should have only considered the proposed amendment, not the entirety of the previously-approved land use and zoning applications.

In a letter responding to Deltic's protest, Carpenter agreed, calling the Planning Commission's reconsideration of the land use and zoning issues “inappropriate.” In that same letter, Carpenter informed the Commission “that the only thing to do is to rehear this application to consider only the amendments.” With the Feb. 5 vote set aside, a Planning Commission hearing to consider only the proposed 20 acre rezoning is scheduled for Thursday, April 2.

Though residents along Beckenham Drive are disappointed that their temporary victory of Feb. 5 has been quashed, many clearly feel the Planning Commission's rejection of the Deltic Plan has signaled that it's still anybody's fight. Grassroots opposition to the plan has gained considerable steam. At this writing, Beckenham is lined with bright red signs in opposition to the street extension, and a group of neighborhood representatives has met with members of the city board seeking support.

Dana Gaddy is a resident of the Hillsborough neighborhood who has been vocal in her opposition to the Deltic plan. Last Saturday, she collected over 150 signatures on a petition opposing the proposed street expansion and rezoning, and handed out dozens of red signs. She believes the city is too beholden to developers, who seek approval of new developments in exchange for street construction.

“This is a fairly common thing the city does, because they want their streets built,” Gaddy said. “That's the only way they can get it done, because they don't fund street building, they only maintain and improve streets that are built by developers. The developers can't build the streets if they're not going to make enough money.”

Gaddy said that she believes the Planning Commission will probably approve Deltic's proposed amendment when it comes up on April 2, and that their biggest fight will be when the City Board revisits the issue in May. While she said she's not stoked about Hillsborough's chances for a win, she notes that opponents of the plan do have a lot of “neighborhood pushback” going for them. A newbie to the planning process when this all started, Gaddy has been taken aback by both Deltic's tenacity and the city's willingness to go along in the face of so much community opposition. She added that in the current economy, the idea of rezoning for more office space along Rahling Road just doesn't make sense.

“For them to continue with this particular plan when we have hundreds of thousands of square feet of [available] office and commercial space … there's no reason in the world to do this.”

Deltic didn't respond to a request for comment on the controversy.

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