Leader Blues

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

TOP STORY > >City council acts to close street

Leader staff writer

“I can’t tell you how many calls I get from residents wanting to know when Maryland Avenue will be completely opened,” the mayor told the council and a room full of citizens Tuesday night.

Mayor Virginia Hillman wanted the council to approve a plan to close Hemphill Street and have the Stonehill Subdivision developer spend about $350,000 to open the portion of Maryland Avenue that is set to run through his development.

Hillman brought the same idea up to the planning commission earlier in May and hit a brick wall with personality conflicts and procedural concerns.

“This just sounds like an ultimatum,” said Alderman Charlie Harmon. His sentiments were echoed by Alderman Becki Vassar. Neither liked the idea that the developer, in his initial subdivision plans approved more than seven years ago, agreed to build and open both Hemphill and Maryland roadways. “Now he wants us to close one road first and then he’ll build the other. That doesn’t sound right,” said Vassar.

“We are cheating our citizens by not opening Maryland Avenue,” Hillman said.

After a lengthy discussion, the council opted to throw the plan back in the developer’s lap, asking if the developer would consider building his portion of Maryland Road first and then coming back to the council in about seven months or so to see if the city would then close Hemphill Road.

Former Razorback standout Scotty Thurman, representing the developer, Cypress Properties, told the council that he would take the proposal back, but didn’t think the developer would go for it.
The mayor’s plan doesn’t actually call for closing Hemphill Road, which is currently a substandard dead-end street, but to close the portion that needs to be built to make the road a thoroughfare, about 350 feet. Projected costs to complete the road and bring the current portion up to city standards would be about $350,000.

The developer would complete his portion of Maryland Avenue, and then a small portion would be left to make the roadway a complete east-west thoroughfare. That portion is in the city budget, according to the mayor, to be built this year.

Wes Lowder, an engineer working for the developer, said the major cost of Hemphill is not the linear distance but soil and drainage issues which would bring the project up to $350,000 or more, Lowder agreed with the council that the original plans called for the developer to open both roads when the development reached those areas. But with about 70 unsold lots already in the developed parts of the subdivision, the developer has no plans of opening up new lots on Hemphill Road along Maryland Avenue, meaning he doesn’t have to complete either road at this time. “He’s adamant about not opening up Hemphill Road, “Lowder said.

Late Friday, Andy Collins with Cypress Properties explained that he’s gone door-to-door in the Hemphill community and says all the neighbors, except one, are against opening Hemphill. “They are afraid it’ll become a speedway,” Collins said, adding that opening Maryland was a more practical and quicker way to break the gridlock on Brockington.

He explained that even opening up Maryland Avenue was not economically feasible for the developer. “We’ll only pick up 12 lots, and after spending $350,000 on the roadway, it’s a loss,” Lowder said, adding that the developer would rather do that than open up Hemphill.
The mayor called it a win-win situation, but Alderman Sheila Sulcer said, “It’s better for the developer, not for us.”

Sulcer also reminded the council that this same developer had two strikes against him as far as she was concerned. “He has sent out mean letters about neighbors, and he built a bad street that cost the city $200,000 to fix.”

“And are we setting a precedent,” added Vassar, “for another developer to come in next week and get out of something he’s supposed to do?”

The mayor responded, “This is not political or personal, or to help the developer. It’s what’s best for the citizens.”

A handful of residents spoke on the issue; all recommended the city open Maryland Avenue and close Hemphill.

David Barnes, who lives on Hemphill, said, “We already have traffic and speeding problems. If you open it up, we’ll just have more congestion, and if you expand the road to meet city standards that’ll take more of our yards and leave less space for the kids to play.”

Justin Smith reminded the council of the spring tornado that blocked Loop Road. We had one way in and one way out for a very long time. It was a dangerous situation. If we don’t open up Maryland Avenue, we’ll have the same problem when something happens on Brockington Road.”

The mayor agreed with the council that the city needs north-south thoroughfares like Hemphill as well as another major east-west corridor like Maryland. “Here is our chance to get one of them. If we do nothing, we’ll get neither one.”

In agreeing to ask the developer to show good faith first, the council told Thurman and Lowder that they would be willing to set up a special meeting with the developer to approve the suggestion that he goes first.

In other council business:
- The aldermen approved spending $149,269 to fund fulltime staffing at the Gravel Ridge fire station, which was recently annexed into Sherwood with most of the rest of Gravel Ridge. “This puts them on the same footing as our other fire departments,” the mayor said.

- The council approved a resolution declaring 7900 Hwy. 107 (Couch’s Garage) a public nuisance. The resolution allows the city to condemn the property.

- Aldermen approved an ordinance rezoning property at Hwy. 107 and Oakdale from C-2 to C-3, allowing the acreage to be used for a wider array of commercial projects. A related ordinance rezoning a lot in the Lake Cherry Subdivision from R-1 to C-1 was sent back to the planning commission at the developer’s request. The developer wanted the property rezoned C-3 and will revisit the issue with the commission next month.