Leader Blues

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

EDITORIALS>>Water users get soaked

Between the lawyers and the reporters who record their pleadings, the legal jousting over building subdivisions west of Lake Maumelle leaves most of us baffled. But one point is crystal clear. You should get ready to pay a lot more for your water before long. The developers and speculators out there in the Maumelle watershed are going to get rich — make that richer — at your expense.

Lake Maumelle, which was built in 1956 to supply drinking water for Little Rock, now serves more than 400,000 people, all of whom have a vital interest in the legal maneuvers between the county, the water company and the developers. Damming the Big Maumelle River created magnificently scenic vistas in the valleys around the lake and rare economic opportunities for developers to cash in on the beauty as the city grew westward. Buying all the land that was impounded by the lake was expensive for the waterworks back then but keeping the developers at bay, if it is even possible, is going to cost much more.

The water utility, Central Arkansas Water, won a battle with the largest development company, Deltic Timber Corp., which wanted to build luxury homes along the steep slopes that it owned, but the utility will have to pay a high price to keep pollution out of the basin. Other developers are lining up. The only real insurance for pure water into the future is for the waterworks to have the land that is most vulnerable to pollution condemned and buy it.

The developers demand the fetching prices that luxury properties in other places would claim — tens of thousands of dollars an acre.

The latest dispute is over a 965-acre development that would be called Canterbury Park near the Big Maumelle River where it drains into the water supply. The developers have been suing the county government to force it to approve its development plans so that it can get the earthmoving machinery in place. Central Arkansas Water is suing to stop it because the developer won’t meet the water company’s standards.

Studies by the U. S. Geological Survey show that Maumelle waters have maintained unusually high purity. Few places in the country enjoy such pristine water. But the sediment deposits, the geometry of the reservoir and the growing development in the basin suggest that it may not always be so. The water company owes it to all of us and future generations to be aggressive in protecting the water.

The developers tell the water company that if it does not like their subdivision plans it should buy the land at the premium prices that the market demands, and condemnation is indeed what the utility in the end must do. But acquisition at $15,000 to $25,000 an acre is far beyond the utility’s ability and will require higher water rates from the 400,000-plus customers. It also is unconscionable.

The equation is inherently unfair: The developers value the land in a way that they pay only pennies per acre in ad-valorem taxes to the county and the schools, but when they propose selling it to the public, they value it like it was the French Riviera.

Here is the fair way that it should be handled: Whatever a property owner lists as the value of the land when he records it for tax purposes with the county courthouse is the maximum price that should be paid for the land when it is condemned for public purposes like keeping pure drinking water. What could be fairer than that? The courts may not recognize that valuation system, just though it is, so lawmakers ought to provide the foundation for a level field the next time they are in town.