Leader Blues

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

TOP STORY>> CAW buys land, protects source

IN SHORT: Central Arkansas Water gathers steam in its move to protect the area’s drinking water with victories in the state legislature and in Pulaski County court.

Leader staff writer

Central Arkansas Water has both the existing authority to condemn the land Deltic Timber planned to develop on the Lake Maumelle drinking-water reservoir and the money with which to pay for it, according to Jim Harvey, chief executive officer of the utility.

That authority was reaffirmed this month, letting CAW condemn about 300 acres owner Rick Ferguson had hoped to develop as Waterview Estates.

Right now, the water utility is getting a formal appraisal of Ferguson’s land and will establish a value and make him an offer before letting a jury decide on its value, according to Dale Russom, CAW’s chief operating officer.

The utility believes his land is worth about $750,000—Ferguson reportedly believes it’s worth about $16 million or more.

There’s been speculation that North Little Rock Mayor Patrick Hays feared that buying the land would require a water rate increase and was lobbying CAW board members against condemnation.

Harvey said he was unaware of any such action on Hays’ part. Hays denied he was helping CAW.

“I am talking to the commissioners,” Hays said Friday, “but it doesn’t have to do with suggesting how they protect the watershed. I’m staying consistent with the resolution the city council passed. If there are alternatives, pick the least costly, whether it’s monitoring and pretreatment, or acquisition of land or perhaps some other way.”

Hays said that when the issue first came up, he asked Harvey if condemnation could cost ratepayers and he was told it could.
“I’m on the ratepayers’ side,” the mayor said.

The Pulaski County Quorum Court last week approved a resolution supporting CAW and its efforts to keep the area’s drinking water at the highest possible quality.

County Judge Floyd (Buddy) Villines said Hays’ real concern was the cost to ratepayers, while his own perspective was first to determine what’s necessary to protect the watershed, then worry about the cost.

“I’ve been directed to condemn and purchase the land,” Villines said, citing a September 2003 resolution by the board and an April, 2004 board vote to condemn the land.

“I have not heard of anything in the works to overturn that,” Harvey said.

“I’m keeping my fingers crossed,” he added.

The land in question is 1,000 acres, most of it owned by Deltic Timber, the balance by Ferguson.

A jury will decide what that land is worth in September, according to CAW’s Russom.

As for the cost of purchasing the condemned land, Harvey said the utility had budgeted and set aside about $5 million for this year and Russom said the total was $9 million over two years.

“That would not require a rate increase,” Harvey said. “That’s part of the last bond issue. It’s covered in the existing rate structure.”
CAW will meet again Thursday to review plans for the watershed.

Hays and Little Rock Mayor Jim Daily showed up and spoke in favor of protecting the water, but didn’t directly address the condemnation issue, said Russom. “They wanted us to explore all options.”

CAW commissioners will be interviewing three finalists Thurs-day in the process of selecting a firm to plan Lake Maumelle watershed management, Russom said.