BY ADAM WALLWORTH, Northwest Arkansas Times
Printed Saturday, September 4, 2004
Although the Fayetteville City Council has been given conflicting recommendations of how to spend the $100,246 remaining in the Tree and Trails fund, aldermen expressed their support for both options, Friday. "I don’t look at it as either-or. If both (parcels) have value, we need to identify how to make both pieces work," said Ward 2 Alderman Don Marr while on a tour of 2.46 acres on South Duncan Avenue.
In addition to the parcel on Duncan, which includes environmentally sensitive wetland, the council toured a 2.44-acre tract owned by the late E. Fay Jones. The Jones property spans the Center-Prairie Trail, which is under construction and would be used to connect that trail to the new public library.
The question before the council is whether to spend the remaining funds on the property or to divide it between the purchase of both parcels. The Tree and Trail fund was created with $450,000 the city agreed to pay in a settlement for violating its own tree preservation ordinance in 2000.
Mayor Dan Coody advocates spending the remaining money on the Jones property only, which is also the recommendation of the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board.
The Tree and Trails Task Force, which was created to advise the council on how to spend the funds, recommends the money be divided between the purchases of the two parcels.
If the council agrees with the task force, the city would have to find the additional $50,000 for the purchase of the Jones property, while the Town Branch Neighborhood Association will be charged with finding the needed funds to purchase the property on Duncan.
When council members arrived at the Duncan property, they were greeted by about 15 area residents, two candidates vying for Coody’s job and a homemade banner that featured children’s names next to hand prints and read "We love (heart) our wetland."
Jennifer Creel, co-chair of the Town Branch Neighborhood Association, expressed her angst at the process that led to the council’s consideration of spending the remainder of the funds on the Jones property.
Although the Jones property is valuable and should be preserved, Creel said, preservation of the property on Duncan is imperative. Though the Duncan property would become the only greenspace in the association’s boundaries, she said, the very nature of the wetland is worthy of preserving.
Wetland contains hydric soil, Creel said, which essentially means it acts like a sponge for storm water. Because most of the land in the association’s watershed (the southwestern part of the University of Arkansas campus) has been paved, she said, the streets and the homes in the area flood during storms.
Coody said that, in addition to the trail options, the Jones property is important because it is the last remaining undeveloped greenspace downtown. Additionally, the tree fund was not intended to be leveraged against the general fund, he said, as is recommended by the task force, which was only intended to advise the council.
Task force member Melissa Terry, who represents the Sierra Club, which is one of the groups that brought the suit against the city, argued that the task force was intended to leverage the funds to preserve as much land as possible. The city could use (a portion of) the estimated $4.5 million remaining from the sale of the Wilson Spring Business Park on the purchase of the Jones property.
Ward 1 Alderman Brenda Thiel, also a taskforce member, said she would propose the needed budget adjustment to secure the needed funding for the purchase of the Jones property. The task force had pursued the purchase of the Duncan property before the Jones property was ever discussed, she said, and only backed off when the asking price came back higher than the appraised value.
Coody, answering questions from neighbors of the Duncan property, explained that the city can offer only around 10 percent more than the appraised value of a parcel. However, when a developer bids on property, it becomes the value of the land, he said, even if it is significantly greater than the appraisal.
Though the Jones property was originally valued (appraised) at $40,000, Coody said, two other developers drove the price up and another has since expressed interest in the property. Though one of the original two developers did not bid on the land, he said, a ‘young doctor’ drove the price up $60,000 and would have already purchased it had Jones not wanted to see it preserved as a city park.
Ward 4 Alderman Shirley Lucas described the property on Duncan as a "hidden treasure" and expressed her support of both. "The way it is now, Tuesday we’ll decide on [the Jones property,] and we’ll have to see what comes from that," she said.
Ward 4 Alderman Lioneld Jordan expressed his desire to see all neighborhoods given equal treatment. If the city will give the Mount Sequoyah residents the option to purchase property in their neighborhood, he said, then the council should give residents of the Town Branch neighborhood the same offer.
The council approved using $100,000 from the tree fund, at the request of the task force, for the purchase of the 67 wooded acres on Mount Sequoyah. "All neighborhoods should be the same," Jordan said. "I just would really like to see us give the (Town Branch) neighborhood a chance — just a chance."
Mayoral challengers Doug Kuntz and Cyrus Young attended the event at the request of Creel.
Kuntz, who trekked into the middle of the property, said he attended to learn about the situation.
Young also expressed the desire for more information on the matter, but said he came to support the neighborhood.