BY ADAM WALLWORTH, Northwest Arkansas Times
Members of the Tree and Trails Task Force approved a resolution Thursday to direct Fayetteville Mayor Dan Coody to negotiate the purchase of an option on a 2.46-acre tract of land located on South Duncan Avenue.
The parcel is one of two that the task force recommended buying with funds remaining from a $450,000 settlement the city agreed to for violating its own tree preservation ordinance in 2000. The task force was created to advise the City Council on the use of the funds.
The other property under consideration is located near the new public library and spans the Center-Prairie Trail, which is under construction. The property is owned by the family of architect E. Fay Jones, who died last week at the age of 83.
The city administration had recommended applying the remainder of the settlement funds to the purchase of the property near the library for a price of $100,000. The council decided to delay action on the purchase, in part, to allow the Jones family time to mourn, but also to prepare a resolution on the Duncan parcel.
Ward 1 Alderman Brenda Thiel presented an amendment to the council to use the tree and trail funds for half of the purchase price of the land near the library, with the remainder to come from the estimated $4.5 million remaining from the sale of the Wilson Springs Business Park.
The Town Branch Neighborhood Association would be charged with finding the remaining $80,000 or so necessary to purchase the land on Duncan.
Melissa Terry, who represents the Sierra Club on the task force, said the neighbors had been told they could purchase the property for $100,000* and are pursuing $50,000 in matching funds through a grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Duncan property owner James Mathias, who was contacted after the meeting, said he is willing to sell the property at a discount, but has not lowered his asking price below $130,000. The property was purchased for $100,000, he said, and has been approved for the construction of 36 apartment units, which would drive the value above $150,000.
Mathias said that in the nearly two years that have passed since the project was approved by the Planning Commission, he has expended roughly $40,000 in engineering fees. Because the neighbors are staunchly opposed to seeing the property developed, he said he would sell it at a price that would recuperate most of his investment.
The desire to preserve the property stems from the presence of environmentally sensitive wet lands on the property. Neighbors have expressed their desire to save the property, which acts as a sponge during storms and helps to alleviate drainage issues in the area.
Mathias said that while he is willing to sell the property at discount, he has grown increasingly frustrated by the number of parties that have contacted him about the property and the lack of an official negotiator. "Iím willing to negotiate," he said, "But I feel like Iím out here negotiating with a ghost."
Though Coody was not at the task force meeting, he was briefed on the discussion afterward and subsequently contacted Mathias.
Coody said that the two had agreed to meet to discuss the option some time next week and is confident that a resolution can be reached that will satisfy all parties.
The group discussed disbanding, which will happen once the funds are spent, however Thiel recommended leaving the body in tact, in case the neighbors are not able to raise the funds. Though the tree and trail money could be applied elsewhere, she said, there are other possibilities for purchasing the property.
Thiel said the city could potentially purchase the land and use it to leverage federal grant monies that would be used to build attainable housing. The lot is large enough to incorporate two single family lots, she said, and still preserve the wet lands.
Mathias said that regardless of who wants to buy the property, whether it be the city, neighbors or task force, if no sale is negotiated he will move forward with the development. Approval for the project will expire in May, he said, and if no deal is reached construction will begin.
Hopefully the situation can have a positive resolution, Mathias said, but "Iím not going to wait forever for them." "Iím tired of dealing with them I have business to run. They need to put their money where their mouth is ńń thatís the city, tree and trails, the neighbors, whatever," Mathias said. "All Iíve gotten is mouth ńń no money."
*EDITOR'S NOTE: Terry mistook the quote. The figure is $125,000.