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First printed in
The Morning News
of Northwest Arkansas
Aubrey's Notebook:
Public needs every acre it owns and more!

FAYETTEVILLE -- Selling off public land has shown itself to be a bad practice, whether the act is committed by local, state or federal officials.

Once public land enters private hands, its price rises drastically in many cases, and the public ends up paying much more for needed land later. One example is the soon-to-be closed sale of 20 acres of city land in southwest Fayetteville for $1 million. A majority of the members of the City Council were apparently so impressed by the amount offered that they approved the deal without holding a public hearing or even saying much about it beforehand.

A week or so later, the Washington County Quorum Court spent a lengthy meeting discussing how to find a site for a desperately needed new regional jail. The requirements for a combination regional jail and county road-equipment shop and storage area sound exactly like the 20 acres the city has agreed to sell to a private, out-of-state corporation to be developed as a high-priced apartment complex targeting well-heeled university students.Many people believe too much expensive housing already is standing empty in the area.

Examples involving smaller parcels can be seen in the frequent vacation of various easements, particularly alleys. The loss of a right of way between houses may come back to haunt another generation of city fathers, yet alleys are frequently abandoned to owners of adjacent land even though firefighters, movers and repairmen often find them useful and possible changes in utility infrastructure may make them extremely important in coming decades.

A portion of an abandoned railroad right of way at Hill Avenue between Sixth and 11th streets in Fayetteville is for sale and the tracks are being removed. Whatever the price, the city ought to buy the property and retain it for potential access to otherwise almost inaccessible land, particularly because it includes a rail bridge over the creek that drains Carlson Terrace to Town Branch.

Old rail lines offer excellent trail bases and some have become especially valuable such as the stretch now identified as the Railroad Prairie State Natural Area east of Little Rock. Should our transportation planners suddenly realize the value of again using the rail line, it would be much cheaper to have retained the right of way.

Another difficult-to-explain practice in a city that was the first in the region to try to protect its trees is the removal of vegetation from public parks without considering the opinions of citizens or weighing the consequences for urban wildlife and the increased temperature extremes created when a city removes its trees and brush. The most recent and startling example is at the intersection of South Block Avenue and 13th Street, where an acre of timber and brush was destroyed to make way for parking. Certainly, Walker Park needs parking space and will until more people share rides to sporting events there or until public transportation is made widely available in the city. But the timbered land between Walker Park's ball fields and South College Avenue is itself a treasure that ought to be protected. There is a great amount of already-cleared land along the western edge of South Block that could be developed for parking without further destruction of habitat for birds and other wildlife.

Another example is downstream from Lake Fayetteville, where brush and trees have repeatedly been removed in recent years without public input and without consideration for wildlife that depend on the vegetation for sustenance. Even a portion of the land west of the Lake Fayetteville Dam and south of the ball fields has been partially cleared, despite published reports suggesting that the acreage was to be managed as a natural area.

Similarly, brush and young trees along Scull Creek in Wilson Park repeatedly have been cut back in recent years, even though the very same vegetation is so important to nesting songbirds that a member of the staff of the University of Arkansas for some years used the area for a significant amount of his now-published study of bird-nesting habits.

City officials are unable to prevent the clearing of nearly all timber and brush from private land where development is proposed until after such land is the subject of a formal application to the city for approval of a building project. However, it would appear that city employees and officials would follow the intent of the city's tree ordinance and avoid destroying vegetation on public property at all cost.

The trees do much more than please the eye of those with the leisure to pause and look at them. They keep a layer of cool air near the ground all over the city, reducing everyone's cooling costs in summer, they reduce the power of the cold wind of winter, they remove carbon dioxide from the air and replenish the oxygen supply.

Their shade protects citizens from skin cancer and the unpleasantness of walking on hot pavement. Left standing in parking lots and along the edge of streets, they make parked cars pleasant to enter in summer.

The list could go on and on.


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Aubrey James Shepherd
Fayetteville, AR © 2003, 2004, 2005

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