Leader Blues

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

TOP STORY >>City still unhappy with route

Leader staff writer

Sherwood’s rapid growth and development have already added years and millions of dollars to the cost of constructing the next leg of the North Belt Loop from Highway 67/167, and they might now add even more to the cost.

The city is taking offense at the Highway Department’s plans for an I-440 interchange near the intersection of Brockington and Oakdale. The city thinks current plans put the interchange too close to the intersection and will choke commercial development of the four corners of the intersection.

The problem is if the area develops commercially before design plans are locked in, it could spell trouble for completion of the North Belt.

Alderman Steve Fender told Sherwood’s City Council recently that a planned North Belt freeway interchange close to Oakdale and Brockington could prevent the development of commercially-zoned land in the area.

In question are two tracts of commercial land, totaling more than 100 acres. “The development of this four- corners area is very important to the city,” Fender told the city council at its meeting last month.

“Right now with the design the Highway Department is advocating, the city is faced with either having the freeway and interchange or having development on the four corners of that area,” he said.

Randy Ort, a spokesman for the Highway Department, said the highway extension was still very early in the planning stages and interchange designs could be changed.

“We are aware of the city’s concerns and always try to work with a community,” he said. “No matter what we come up with some people are going to be negatively impacted. The growth that will be generated by the North Belt will benefit not only Sherwood, but all of central Arkansas,” Ort said.

Ort explained that once a design is developed there will be public hearings on it. “The department will use the comments from those hearings to finalize the design, making any changes that are necessary,” he explained.

Ort said that a route was tentatively planned for the North Belt leg between Highway 67/167 and Highway 107 back in the early 1990’s. “We even had federal approval, but Sherwood had different plans for a portion of the land we wanted for the North Belt,” he said. The city went to Metroplan to plead its case, and Metroplan agreed. “Without Metroplan’s backing, we can’t get federal money and you need federal money for a project of this size,” Ort said.

Now 13 years later, the piece of land is Miller’s Crossing subdivision and a new route has been proposed for the leg. “We had to look at alternative routes and do a new environmental impact study,” Ort said.

According to Fender, the Highway Department doesn’t have the power to place a moratorium on construction in the planned interchange area. Only the city can do that, and the department needs to know that no construction will take place in the right of way that it needs for the interchange.

But until the city issues a moratorium, it cannot deny any development requests for that land if all other criteria have been met.

The concern, according to City Engineer Michael Clayton, is that the on and off ramps will be too close to the signal-light intersection, preventing commercial growth. Clayton said he is working with the developers and owners of the property to come up with a consensus on what is the best solution to move forward on this thorny issue.

According to Highway Department officials, once the city ensures the department that no development will take place; the state will proceed with the survey and the preliminary designs.

Both Clayton and Fender hope to present to the council at its next meeting a recommendation based on consensus of the developers and the Highway Department to protect the integrity of the interchange and still allow for some commercial growth.