By Wally Loveless, Adkins, McNeill, Smith & Associates
While today’s guest author Wally Loveless has been an active participant in the discussions surrounding the watershed as a member of the Arkansas REALTORS® Association, the Association itself has not taken a position on the issue. The following article is meant to be an informational overview of the decisions and discussions that have taken place thus far.
The Lake Maumelle Watershed Land Use Plan is currently under consideration by the Pulaski County Quorum Court. It is a plan that has generated much emotional debate and one that very possibly could have statewide ramifications. Many fear the water supply will be forever spoiled and, understandably, those who are at risk of losing property rights in the watershed fear the loss of their property rights and land values. For the moment Pulaski County Judge Buddy Villines has tabled the issue until the spring of 2012.
In case you haven’t been tuned in let me review the process.
As Little Rock moved west and into the watershed Central Arkansas Water (CAW) recognized the need to develop a plan to preserve the water quality of Lake Maumelle. Maumelle is a shallow 8,900 acre lake with a watershed of approximately 89,000 acres. Almost half, 47 percent, of the watershed is not developable due in large part to being in a national forest. The watershed itself lies in Pulaski, Perry and Saline counties. The current Land Use Plan pertains only to Pulaski County since neither Perry County nor Saline County have indicated a desire to join the process.
In 2004 Central Arkansas Water convened a Maumelle Watershed Task Force in order to have stakeholders be a part of the process. I was selected to represent the Arkansas REALTORS® Association of which I am a member. My charge was to see that water quality was not compromised while making sure that property rights were not being trampled. One of the recommendations of the task force was to hire a firm, independent of local pressures, to study the watershed and develop a management plan that would ensure the present quality of water and give those who own property in the watershed the most freedom possible.
Tetratech, a firm out of North Carolina, was hired at a fee in excess of $1,000,000 to provide a report. Additionally, they chaired the Policy Advisory Committee (PAC), a group made up of stakeholders for a period of two years as the study was being completed and analyzed. The PAC was made up of small and large landowners, Central Arkansas Water, conservation groups, cities who are served by Central Arkansas Water and county officials. At the end of our process the Committee unanimously adopted a management plan that included stream buffers, excluded certain uses such as swine or chicken farms, landfills and other industrial uses that would seriously harm the watershed. Additionally, a Site Evaluation Tool (SET) was adopted which would determine the amount of development that would be appropriate for a site and how to go about it depending on the slope, soil make up, forestation and other variables that have an impact on the amount of run off. Everyone, including Central Arkansas Water, was pleased with the management plan.
Since that time some have felt that there needs to be increased restriction in the watershed. To that end WRT, a Kansas firm, was hired to develop a land use plan and zoning restrictions for the watershed. In the original Scope of Work for WRT they were to hold a series of planning sessions with public and private stakeholders called “charrettes”. However, this was not done. The county initially said that they would hold focus groups instead of using the charrette process but eventually scrapped the focus groups. Understandably, when the plan became public the owners in the watershed became alarmed. Although they had been included in the Policy Advisory Committee, the Land Use Plan was developed specifically without public input. As the plan was reviewed it was clear the Land Use Plan addressed more than water quality. During a series of meetings this summer and fall concerned citizens in the watershed made their feelings known. They have since organized the Pulaski County Property Owners Coalition and are working to enact a reasonable plan that will protect the water quality but not unnecessarily take their property rights and decrease their land values. They have been joined by groups such as the Arkansas Farm Bureau, Pulaski County Farm Bureau and the Little Rock REALTORS® Association who feel that the process was done too fast and had too little public review.
Fortunately now, we have the luxury of having time to get it right. This is not an acute issue. The lake is not in eminent danger. Tetratech has projected about 225 homes being built in the watershed over the next 20 years. The U. S. Geological Survey is completing a report reviewing the Tetratech report which will be completed in February. The “bonus” is that while Tetratech used only two data points for a two year period, the USGS will use five years of data and access to satellite imagery which can measure rain throughout the watershed. Additionally, the University of Arkansas at Little Rock is developing an economic impact study of the landowners in the watershed and potential impact on those who derive their revenue from real estate and sales taxes such as Little Rock and the Pulaski County Special School District.
The delay will also help avoid any law suits that may arise from a plan that conflicts with the Arkansas constitution which has a strong position on private property rights. One example of such a case is the Kelo case, wherein a private citizen was forced to sell private property to another private entity. In that case the seller received additional compensation. Should land owners lose significant value without compensation as a result of this Land Use Plan, in our litigious culture, there could be cause for action to recover lost value. To date there has been no discussion for a way to compensate property owners for lost value. In recent years Central Arkansas Water has settled a condemnation suit in which the owner sued because he claimed that CAW had grossly under appraised his property. No one is served by lengthy and expensive legal proceedings.
The good news is that we will have better data next year, we will have a sense of economic impact, and we will avoid rushing into a plan that was not fully vetted publicly. Any plan will be continually monitored by Central Arkansas Water and the impact reviewed on a regular basis by the USGS.