Leader Blues

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

TOP STORY >> Sherwood to take on big debt with course

Leader staff writer

It took just 13 minutes Monday evening for the Sherwood City Council to condemn and take control of the defunct 106-acre North Hills County Club.

In voting for the use of eminent domain, the council allowed for no public input from the packed, standing room only chamber room, admonish those there for not entrusting them and saddled the city with an unknown debt that could hit $9 million or more by the time the property is paid off.

The move, according to the owners, will not affect the lawsuit they have against the city for placing a building moratorium on the property early last year which prevents a sale of the property

Mayor Virginia Hillman, who does not have any veto power and can only vote when there is a tie told the council that a large number of residents were against condemnation. She made it clear in her mayoral campaign last summer that she would like the city to have the property, but the decision should be let to a vote of the people.

Alderman Charlie Harmon made it clear that a vote was unnecessary and even usurped the powers and duties of the council. “We make these tough decisions and are elected by the people to make them. We would go broke if we held special elections all the time,” he said. The alderman went on to say that the council decided to finance and build the recreation center and the senior center without a vote of the people.

He even added that no one in Gravel Ridge wanted to see the closed golf course turned into a residential subdivision. Yet no one publicly brought that issue up at any of the three annexation meetings held the past two months. All aldermen voted for the condemnation ordinance except Alderman Sheila Ulcer who abstained.

The ordinance stated that “it has been determined that the area of the city commonly known as North Hills Country Club should be preserved as a public park, including green space, and for other public purposes to be developed, including without limitation, parks , recreational facilities, hiking/biking trails and other purposes for the betterment of the city.”

The ordinance retains the same law firm that condemned property on the south side of the Arkansas River years ago for the building of the Clinton Library, and called the need to acquire the property “a necessity for the best interests of the citizens of Sherwood.”

Using this method of condemnation allows the city to take possession of the property immediately and then the fair market price is determined in court at a later date. Appraisals vary from a city-funded study that said the land, as a golf course, was worth $2.2 million, to the county tax rolls which has the property appraised at more than $3 to a one-time firm offer of $5.1 million to an owner-funded appraisal of $5.5 million.

Whatever amount the court decides on will be funded through the city’s facilities board which would go out and get the loan for the court determined cost, which may also include the current owner’s expenses and legal fees, and the city would make monthly mortgage payments on that amount.

If the cost was $2.2 million, at 7 percent over 20 years, the total cost would actually be $3.7, according to a local mortgage bank. A court-agreed price around $5 million could escalate the final cost to more than $9 million.

That amount, no matter what it turns out to be, will be paid off in monthly payments of $15,000 or more per month. But on top of that the city will have to invest in repairing or remodeling the golf course property into whatever it determines it want the land to be. The city must also pay to renovate or tear down the current club house, tennis courts, other buildings and the pool.

Alderman Becki Vassar called the condemnation vote great for the city.

Even though Vassar lives off the golf course, on Putters Cove, and has a view of the acreage she saw no conflict of interest.

Sherwood resident Julann Carney, a real estate broker, disagreed. “If her golf course view becomes another subdivision it would affect the value of her home. She has a vested interest in this, and although her vote, and that of some of the other alderman may be legal, it was not morally right. Our aldermen need to be above reproach,” Carney said.

Sherwood resident Doris Anderson, along with other are equally upset with the way the aldermen decided to come up with the ordinance. “They did it at a deposition workshop Thursday with no one from the press or the public present,” she explained.

Carney added that “they’ll say the press was invited, but they don’t have the people to send to a workshop about how to answer questions at a deposition. There is no story there, but they used that workshop to discuss city business,” she said. “It’s just not right,” Anderson said.

On Friday, Vassar said the aldermen decided at the workshop that using its eminent domain authority and condemning the property was the “fastest, most economical and most beneficial for all of Sherwood if we were going to have to spend the money anyway.”

“This way we are not looking at 203 homes on the property, but probably not a golf course either, but desired green space. We just need to save it,” she said.

Vassar explained that if a subdivision was built on the property it would cost the city about $2 million or so to upgrade sewer lines, other utilities and area streets. The aldermen agreed that if they were going to have to spend that kind of money, the city should just go ahead and buy it.

In early January, Club Properties, the owners presented a subdivision plan to the Sherwood Planning Commission to have 92 acres of the golf course property rezoned to allow the company to build 203 homes on the property. The plan met fierce opposition from the commission and was tabled indefinitely.

“We needed to do something,” Rodgers explained back in December, “rather than just sit here on the property.”

Since the city’s imposed building moratorium expired in October, there has been a lot of interest in the property. “We’ve gotten a lot of calls, but no one has come forth, so we decided to go forward.”