Leader Blues

Saturday, November 04, 2006

TOP STORY >>Quirk in rezoning law kills townhouse project

IN SHORT: Emma Knight, a member of the Jacksonville Planning Commission and a former alderman, threatened to resign if the city council approved a controversial housing plan, which lacked a two-thirds majority needed to pass.

By RICK KRON
Leader staff writer

Some Jacksonville aldermen knew three weeks ago that the council had improperly passed a rezoning ordinance, which would have allowed three acres of townhouses to be built, before the snafu was publicly announced Thursday night.

The death of the project, part of a larger development on the south side of West Main near Emma Street, pleased planning commissioner Emma Knight, who threatened to quit the commission if the council approved the rezoning over the commission’s objections.

Knight, who learned Friday evening from The Leader that the rezoning failed, said, “I will remain on the commission, and you won’t hear another word from me on this issue.”

A statement Alder-man Bob Stroud read to the council and a packed chamber of residents Thursday said, “On Wednesday, prior to the Oct. 20 city council meeting, certain members of the council became aware of an obscure paragraph in the ‘Handbook for Arkansas Municipal Officials’ that purports to require a two-thirds vote of the entire membership in order to overturn certain zoning decisions.”

Because of that requirement, Stroud pulled the rezoning request, which was set for its third and final reading, from the Oct. 20 meeting without any explanation.

When Aldermen Terry Sansing and Gary Fletcher tried to get a public explanation, Stroud refused, and Mayor Tommy Swaim would only say that the ordinance was pulled according to the rules of order.

“After careful consideration,” Stroud continued, “the city attorney’s opinion is that it takes seven out of ten members of the council to overturn a disapproval of certain zoning action.”

The planning commission at its Sept. 11 meeting soundly turned down the rezoning request by local developer Tim McClurg to rezone a three-acre portion of the 26 acres he was planning to develop for the purpose of building 35 townhouses on West Main near Emma Street. McClurg had also planned to build 25 single homes between Emma Street and the townhouses.
McClurg then appealed the decision, which is his right, to the city council and Stroud sponsored the ordinance asking for the rezoning to be approved.

Stroud said he felt the planning commission erred in its decision to turn down the rezoning. He said the commission turned it down under the verbal assault of a few misinformed citizens and made no effort to compromise with the developer or make any further attempt at studying the issue.

At the Sept. 21 council meeting, the rezoning ordinance seemingly passed Sept. 21 by a 5-4 vote.

Stroud, along with aldermen Kevin McCleary, Reedie Ray, Bill Howard and Kenny Elliott, voted fand Gary Fletcher tried to get a public explanation, Stroud refused, and Mayor Tommy Swaim would only say that the ordinance was pulled according to the rules of order.

“After careful consideration,” Stroud continued, “the city attorney’s opinion is that it takes seven out of ten members of the council to overturn a disapproval of certain zoning action.”

The planning commission at its Sept. 11 meeting soundly turned down the rezoning re-quest by local developer Tim McClurg to rezone a three-acre portion of the 26 acres he was planning to develop for the purpose of building 35 townhouses on West Main near Emma Street. McClurg had also planned to build 25 single homes between Emma Street and the townhouses.
McClurg then appealed the decision, which is his right, to the city council and Stroud sponsored the ordinance asking for the rezoning to be approved.

Stroud said he felt the planning commission erred in its decision to turn down the rezoning. He said the commission turned it down under the verbal assault of a few misinformed citizens and made no effort to compromise with the developer or make any further attempt at studying the issue.

At the Sept. 21 council meeting, the rezoning ordinance seemingly passed by a 5-4 vote.

Stroud, along with aldermen Kevin Mc-Cleary, Reedie Ray, Bill Howard and Kenny Elliott, voted for it, while Sansing and Fletcher, along with aldermen Marshall Smith and Avis Twitty, voted against it.

Alderman Linda Rinker was absent for the first vote and the mayor did not vote.

The council approved it a second time on Oct. 5 by a 6-4 vote with Rinker joining the yes side.

Thursday night, Stroud said, “Unless at least one of the four dissenting members is willing to repent, this ordinance will not be placed on its third and final reading tonight.”

“Repent?” Sansing said, laughing.

None of the aldermen changed their mind, and that killed the ordinance, meaning the townhouses will not be built, at least at that location.

City Attorney Robert Bamburg apologized to the council and residents for not realizing at the first reading in September that seven votes were needed. “My wife says I sometimes have a problem with thinking I know it all. This time I definitely didn’t.
“In all my years working with the council this is only the second time I’ve made a mistake on voting requirements,” Bamburg said.

The council amended its Sept. 21 minutes to show that the ordinance did not pass on the first reading. Its Oct. 5 minutes will reflect that the ordinance passed but the vote was null and void.

Bamburg said the council now needs to work at becoming a cohesive unit again, as the rezoning issue caused a great divide.
During the first and second readings, the council chambers were packed with residents who lived near the planned townhouses who spoke against the plan. Some city leaders, like the chamber’s executive director, spoke for it.

On the council, Smith said he had been in his seat for 26 years and had never gone against the planning commission and wasn’t going to on this issue.

Planning Commissioner Emma Knight told the mayor and the council at the Oct. 5 meeting that she would resign if the issue passed.

“I sell upscale homes,” she said at that meeting. “These townhouses are not upscale. I don’t think this is the best plan for Jacksonville. We do not need these.

“I will resign, mayor, if this passes,” she said.

Knight said the townhouses have been touted as great retirement homes, but in a survey of people aged 50 and older she conducted, “no one wanted to live in them.”

Later Knight called it a trust issue.

“The council entrusted us to make decisions, and now they don’t trust us.” She said when “you don’t trust someone you should replace them or have them go away.”

She plans to go away. “I’ve got too many other meetings and commitments,” she added.

Knight said that the commission covered all the issues involved or connected with this rezoning—traffic, wetlands, drainage, flooding density of dwellings, along with the number of local residents demanding “that we protect them.”
“It was not a hard decision, not a close decision,” she said.

When the third reading of the ordinance, set for Oct. 20, was pulled without explanation, more accusations were fired off.
Stroud pulled the ordinance from the agenda, and with two supporters absent, it gave the appearance of impropriety. The mayor said the ordinance was pulled according to the rules of order. But aldermen Gary Fletcher and Terry Sansing still wanted to know why.

Stroud would not explain at that meeting.

“I just felt that we weren’t taking care of the people’s business, but taking care of political business,” Fletcher said after the ordinance was pulled.

He added that “we are too small to be divided. We need to get back to being one city.”

Fletcher said the people who have attended the many meetings on this issue were entitled to an explanation. “I don’t know if the public has ever been put out this much,” he said.

Stroud said Thursday night that he deeply regretted the rancor, intimidation and animosity exhibited in the council chamber during the past few weeks.

“I am equally sorry that Jacksonville appears to have lost a unique and much-needed housing development that would have been both an asset and a great benefit to the needs of our entire city,” he said.

“Most members of this council are painfully aware that if Jacksonville is to progress as it should, we must improve our schools, broaden the commercial and retail business base and upgrade housing for all citizens,” Stroud said. “And the first two are not likely to happen before we take care of the third.”

Regarding the verbiage that killed the townhouse plan that he supported, Stroud said, “This is a strange little quirk in Arkansas law and an oversight that will be dealt with.”