Leader Blues

Sunday, December 17, 2006

TOP STORY >>Reins put on subdivisions next to lake

IN SHORT: Developers are told to cooperate or no construction in critical area of Lake Maumelle.

By JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader staff writer

Hurry up and agree to a five-condition plan for limited development of the most critical part of the Lake Maumelle drinking-water reservoir or there will be no construction there, the Central Arkansas Water board unanimously told Deltic Timber and other developers Wednesday.

Deltic, Ferguson Developers and Weyerhauser own most of the developable land on the watershed and want to develop close to the lake, while CAW staff, environmentalists and others say preserving the pristine nature of the area’s best drinking-water source should trump development.

The lake was built by the forward-looking water utility in the 1950s exclusively as a drinking water utility.

The CAW Commission Wed-nesday unanimously agreed to stick with its original decision—no development in Critical Area A unless the developers abide by a five-condition plan. Critical Area A is the environmentally sensitive portion of the lake closest to the drinking water intake that serves nearly 400,000 central Arkansans.

The courts have agreed that CAW can condemn the land, which it has done, and must now decide in jury trials the cost of that land. It’s likely to be expensive.

Meanwhile, CAW hired Tetra Tech for about $1.2 million to formulate a Watershed Management Plan with lots of local and scientific input. Tetra Tech has said that the lake’s purity might be best protected by trading limited development under strict conditions in the most critical area in exchange for the big developers voluntarily agreeing to follow watershed rules and implement best management practices on the rest of their watershed land.

Anticipating a major presentation and vote on the results of a year-long Watershed Management Plan shepherded by Tetra Tech Inc., the regular December CAW meeting began 30 minutes early and labored slowly toward a conclusion, parsing phrases of the comprehensive plan. That’s when CAW’s attorney, James Bruce McMath, asked to speak, changing the tone of the meeting.

McMath said Deltic and the others needed to be reminded that no construction in Critical Area A was the default position and that the Deltic-CAW case was set for trial in mid-March.

Unless they could agree on the five development conditions, the developers can give up dreams of expensive lakeside estates.

He objected to the notion that no development was the “fall-back position,” when actually, it is CAW’s option of choice and it is up to the developers to convince them to allow limited building under strict guidelines.

“You have three options,” McMath said. “One, no development; two, don’t do anything and let the lawyers work it out, and three, layout blueprints for negotiated development.”

“I’m still ready to say no development in Critical Area A,” said Commissioner Jane Dickey, “but we have authorized staff to proceed with negotiations.”

Dickey’s motion that there be no development unless the commission received an agreement on the five conditions by sometime in February was unanimously approved.

The negotiated plan, currently known as the McKenzie option for Metroplan Executive Director Jim McKenzie, who has been using it as a framework for negotiations, is essentially the same as Tetra Tech’s “Five Conditions for Development in Critical Area A.”

The five conditions include:

- Reduce overall risk to the lake by getting agreement from major landowners to follow plan requirement in Critical Area A and elsewhere.

- Major landowners must work with CAW to obtain and place off bounds for building other developable land in the watershed.

- If they want to build cluster developments, landowners must conduct successful pilot studies for building with best management practices for at least four years.

- Agree that land costs won’t increase should the pilot studies not prove building in zone A is possible without degrading the lake.

- Administrative, regulatory and enforcement capacity must be in place.

One large problem with management of the 87,000-acre watershed is that it is in three different counties, plus Little Rock’s extraterritorial jurisdiction.

If there is no interlocal agreement or establishment of a Lake Maumelle Watershed Authority, requirements such as best management practices, limits on the number of dwellings that could be built and other problems could only be enforced in court as violation of a contract agreement, and that is a slow and expensive process compared to some sort of authority issuing a citation and a fine.

Also to make any of this work, Tetra Tech has suggested that CAW would have to create at least two new positions, one for administration, the other for enforcement.

If developers agree to the five conditions, then the number of homes that could be built in Critical Area A ranges between 68 and 240 houses.

Commissioner Thomas Rimmer asked Tetra Tech representatives to come back after the first of the year with a more succinct action plan.

The overall Tetra Tech management plan would, at build out, leave about 65 percent of the watershed undeveloped, allowing about 6,590 houses on the 87,000 acres.

Several of the local activists who have worked to keep construction off of Lake Maumelle said after the meeting that they were pleased to see CAW remember its no-build resolution.