by Max Brantley
Negotiations have been underway between the Corps of Engineers and representatives of John Burkhalter, the Little Rock businessman who wants to build a marina on the Arkansas River about a half-mile downstream from the old Rock Island railroad bridge in front of the Clinton Library.
The question is how close Burkhalter can build the Rock City Yacht Club to the river navigation channel, a question that will determine how many boats the marina can accommodate.
The Corps must approve a dredging permit for the work and also agree that the construction doesn't present a hazard to river navigation.
Coincidentally, Burkhalter, a politically influential businessman, is tied up in another local regulatory issue. He wants to build an office building at Sixth and Woodlane. He’s been stymied so far by a Capitol Zoning District rule that limits buildings there to three stories. He wants to build a five-story building.
Mark Redder, project manager for The Holloway Firm, the engineering firm on the Rock Town Marina project, said negotiations so far have produced four reductions in the distance the proposed marina could extend into the river. These reductions have reduced the size of the marina from one capable of handling about 480 boats to around 400, a point at which the project's economic feasibility could become questionable, he said. The marina will include a store, restaurant and fueling station.
Here's the original notice for public comments on the project, with specs and map of location.
Here's a compilation of public comments on the plan. To summarize: Local and state officials generally support the project as an economic boon. (A state Parks employee even said creation of way for boats to attend local events — presumably such as Riverfest — might reduce vehicular congestion.) But federal agencies had questions, as did port operators and others in commercial shipping who are concerned about safety in the shipping channel. In the beginning, the navigation and maintenance section of the Corps said "this is not a good location for a marina," though the Corps is working to address that concern. The Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Fish and Wildlife raised concerns about impact on wildlife habitat and fisheries.
Chris Davies, regulatory manager for the Corps, said the Corps had concerns about original plans because the river navigation channel hugs the south bank of the river, where the marina will be located. Commercial traffic heading downstream has to be very careful aligning large barge tows for passage through multiple bridges and they have little maneuvering room after passing the final bridge before the marina location. Redder noted that barges were once limited to eight units, but now can include 16.
“Our concern is proximity to the channel,” Davies said. “It is relatively close as designed and we are working to be sure it is safe.”
The Corps is awaiting an opinion on safety of the clearance from the Coast Guard, which also has jurisdiction over the waterway. It was supposed to respond by Friday, Sept. 2.
The Corps’ Davies acknowledged that public comments on the project after it was announced were both pro and con, but that it “was not a popularity contest.”
Redder said the designers originally understood structures for docks could go to the channel marker buoys, but that had changed to move the project limit closer to the shore. The new limit was the end of rock dikes that angle into the river. A question then arose of whether the boundary would be the “toe” of the dikes, which is underwater and farther from the bank, or the top of the dike at normal river elevation.
Both Redder and Davies said negotiations had been making progress and neither would characterize them at a stalemate. The Corps isn't ready to approve the latest marina drawing, but hasn’t disapproved it either. It also hasn't approved the dredging permit, but the engineering firm said all other regulatory hurdles had been cleared.
Burkhalter, president of Burkhalter Technologies, is a power in local and state politics, known for contributions to Democratic politicians such as Gov. Mike Beebe. He’s a member of the state Highway Commission, a seat that generally goes to the most influential of gubernatorial appointees. He also helped raise money for Mayor Mark Stodola. City Hall intervened to win more time for Burkhalter in his effort to get a Capitol Zoning District rule change for his office building.