Tuesday night, the Fayetteville City Council took the Town Branch Neighborhood Association a step further in its effort to prevent destruction of a remnant of the wetland prairie that paralleled the Town Branch before the area was a farm and then a subdivision.
The council passed a motion to follow the recommendation of the city's tree and trail task force to split the remaining $100,000 in a fund the panel was created to find uses for after the settlement of a lawsuit over the city's failure to enforce its tree ordinance several years ago when the Steele Crossing development was approved.
Previous allotments of the task force money — dedicated to acquire acreage for the preservation of trees, trails and environmentally sensitive land — went to the preservation of land on Mount Sequoyah that was long ago given by the city fathers to the Methodist Church for an encampment site and for other valuable property, such as a wooded mountainside near Razorback Road.
The task force had voted in December to try to purchase 2.46 acres of wetland west of S. Duncan Avenue between 11th and 12th streets in the watershed of the Town Branch of the West Fork of the White River.
When an appraisal of the land came back at $86,000, members of the task force were under the impression they could offer only the appraised value of the property but asked the mayor to negotiate with the owner of the land, who was asking to recoup what he had spent on the land, about $135,000, and some small profit.
When negotiation stalled, the task force went forward in studying other parcels. Among them was a parcel of 2.44 acres west of S. West Avenue near the old Fayetteville City Hospital, now a nursing home, and the new Fayetteville City Library, which is nearing completion.
This time, the mayor again found negotiation tough. The appraisal of the S. West Avenue land came in at $40,000 and the task force agreed to recommend that amount to the council, but developers offered the owner more and the mayor continued to negotiate to a price of $100,000, which was accepted by the owner because he wanted the timbered land to be
protected and utilized as a nature park.
The mayor then on August 18 approached the tree and trail task force to increase its allotment to the S. West Avenue property to $100,000. This surprised members of the task force and others who had been under the impression the city could offer no more than the appraised value.
The task force chose to stick to its original promise to try to acquire the wetland prairie in the Town Branch watershed and determined to ask the council to approve spending half the $100,000 on the wetland on S.Duncan Avenue and half on the wooded hillside on S. West Avenue.
The city administration put a proposal to spend $100,000 on the wooded hillside on the agenda for Tuesday night. Council member Brenda Thiel, also a member of the task force, moved to amend the proposal to allot $50,000 from the money under the oversight of the task force and to pull $50,000 from the $5.2 million from the sale of the Wilson Spring property in northwest Fayetteville to purchase the West Avenue woodland.
The Wilson Spring parcel was exhaustively studied by a similar task force three and four years ago with experts on wetland and prairie wildlife habitat determining that the bulk of the land should be protected.
Instead of following that task force's recommendation, the city sold it on condition that a small part of the most environmentally sensitive wetland be saved for an Audubon nature preserve. Money from the sale has not been allocated and using a tiny percentage to complete acquisition of the S. West Avenue woodland would be in keeping with the intention of the Wilson Spring task force whose recommendation was ignored.
Tuesday night, the council passed the motion to split the money in the amendment to the administration's proposal and follow the tree and trail task force's recommendation with one abstention but then passed a motion to table the original motion to allow the administration's attorney to review the amendment and to prepare a budget adjustment to allow use of a small percentage of the Wilson Spring money.
Additionally, a council member stated that tabling the issue would allow Thiel to discuss some elements of the amended proposal with members of the tree and trail task force to confirm its support.
Of particular interest was the possibility of setting a time limit of June 1, 2005, for the Town Branch watershed supporters to come up with grants and other money to match the $50,000 and complete negotiation with the owner of the wetland prairie. After that time, the amendment would allow the city to add that $50,000 to the original allotment of $100,000 to the Mount Sequoyah purchase if full financing of the purchase of the prairie wetland on S. Duncan Avenue had not been arranged.
What all this means is that the purchase of the wooded hillside property on S. West Avenue is virtually assured and that the task force's dedication of the remainder of the money as seed for matching by the Town Branch neighbors is within reach.
The Town Branch neighbors, many of whom have experienced near-disastrous flooding three times in 2004 alone and who face the prospect of large-scale development upstream as well as continued increased runoff from the southwestern portion of the University of Arkansas campus and a heavily developed portion of Sixth Street, Razorback Road and other streets in the watershed, now have a chance to work even harder to protect the integrity of their neighborhood and to provide residents and visitors to Northwest Arkansas a small piece of urban wildlife habitat and an area where wildflowers and an incredible variety of nesting and migrating birds on a minimally disturbed wetland prairie can be enjoyed within easy reach of the growing system of regional and city trails.
If this opportunity becomes reality, the Town Branch neighbors will be forever grateful to the Fayetteville tree and trail task force, the Fayetteville City Council, the mayor, Arkansas Audubon, other state and local conservation groups, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, Arkansas Heritage, and the many experts on wetland prairies, wildflowers, native prairie grass and native wildlife and other watershed issues for their attention, encouragement and advice.
Special thanks would have to go to Mr. James Mathias for listening and understanding the concerns of a group of long-time Fayetteville residents and offering the opportunity to preserve the land even though he and his engineer, Ms. Mandy Bunch, have worked many hours to gain city, state and federal approval to develop the wetland.
Coming generations may yet be amazed to find a part of their natural heritage preserved in the midst of a heavily populated urban setting.
And the city will have taken a small but significant step toward compliance with the federal regulations known as Stormwater II.