Leader Blues

Monday, December 10, 2007

TOP STORY >>Land feud renewed between two cities

Leader staff writer

Jacksonville will vote on annexing the Gravel Ridge area on Feb. 5, and then the expectation is that Sherwood will vote on annexing the same area, although no date has been filed with the Pulaski County Election Commission.

But ultimately, it could be Gravel Ridge’s choice which municipality gets the 2,500 acres of about 2,000 people.

Jacksonville City Administrator Jay Whisker, who served six years as the city engineer, said that in the Jacksonville election both the residents of Jacksonville and Gravel Ridge will vote. In the Sherwood election, it would be the residents of Sherwood and Gravel Ridge voting.

Since the cities have the larger voting blocking, annexations of this type are usually approved.

Whisker said if both Jacksonville and Sherwood approve the annexation, then a third election will have to be scheduled for just the residents of Gravel Ridge.

“The question then for them won’t be if they want to be annexed, but into which city do they want to be annexed,” Whisker explained.

What would Jacksonville or Sherwood gain by annexing the Gravel Ridge area? Both land and population. Both cities are running out of affordable or usable land for housing and commercial developments. Gravel Ridge would instantly increase the population of either city by about 8 percent. Good news for Jacksonville, which has remained relatively stagnant over the past 10 years. For Sherwood, an additional 2,000-plus people would bring it closer to surpassing Jacksonville’s population.

Annexation also brings in a tax base of homes and more than two-dozen businesses. That tax base could help Jacksonville bolster its efforts for its own separate school district.

Besides available land for development, the proposed route for the North Belt Freeway goes through a portion of Gravel Ridge, and at least one off-ramp, near Kellogg Valley, will exit into Gravel Ridge, opening that area up to additional development.

By picking Feb. 5 as its date to vote on the Gravel Ridge annexation question, Jacksonville is saving money. The annexation question will piggyback on to the presidential primary vote scheduled for that day. This means the state will pay most of the election costs.

“Jacksonville will have to pay the extra printing cost for the ballots and maybe for a few poll workers,” explained Melinda Allen with the county election commission.

That will amount to a lot less than the normal $10,000 to $20,000 cost for a special election.

Gravel Ridge will be the second piece of acreage that Jacksonville and Sherwood are in competition for.

The first area is 2,000 acres of undeveloped land north of Sherwood and west of Jacksonville. Pulaski County Judge Buddy Villines and a lower court have approved Sherwood’s annexing that area, but Jacksonville has appealed to the state Supreme Court. The case may not be settled until after the Gravel Ridge issue is resolved.

Jacksonville City Attorney Robert Bamburg said the first round of responses from the city’s appeal is not due until the end of the month, and then the parties will have another 90 days to respond.

“It’ll probably be at least March before the court has everything it needs to make a ruling,” he said.

If Sherwood ends up with both annexations, its city limits will stretch at least seven miles in a south-north direction, from exit 3 off Highway 67/167 to the northwestern edge of Little Rock Air Force Base, effectively blocking any westerly expansion of Jacksonville.

The undeveloped acreage currently in dispute is owned by four individuals or companies. The owners of the acreage—Greg Heslep, Byron McKimmey, Metropolitan Realty and Lilac LLC.

They volunteered to come into Sherwood in early 2006. Sherwood accepted the voluntary petition, but Jacksonville objected.
The issue was directed to the Pulaski County Quorum Court, where Villines ruled in favor of Sherwood taking in the land.
Jacksonville appealed again and the case went to circuit court where Sherwood won again.

The property owners told Circuit Court Judge Kilgore Collins that it was financially more beneficial to be part of Sherwood rather than Jacksonville.

Jacksonville leaders had invested millions of dollars in water lines and utility infrastructure in the area, always assuming that the land, which reaches up to the back side of Little Rock Air Force Base, would eventually become part of the city.

Jacksonville also has planning jurisdiction over the area, which includes complying with the Air Force’s restrictions on commercial and residential growth in the area.

The Air Force requires low density housing in the areas off its runway as a safety precaution. Sherwood has said it would honor the development agreement with the military.