by Max Brantley
LATE UPDATE: At 9:44 p.m., the City Board voted unanimously to delay action on a broad zoning ordinance for four weeks. The proposed vets center dominated much of the discussion, but an outpouring of objections from the real estate and business community about unintended consequences from a broad zoning ordinance not in final form until today was the cause of the delay.
From my earlier post:
The Little Rock City Board is two hours into a a discussion about an emergency change in the zoning ordinance that would, among other things, require the Department of Veterans Affairs to get a conditional use permit to open a day center for veterans at 10th and Main. Under existing law, the center is allowed by right in the zone, though it first would have to pass a Board of Adjustment review for the building plans.
Several directors said it was important to require a public hearing process for the broad range of institutions covered in the ordinance — from mental health facilities, to group homes, to religious organizations to businesses that sell alcohol, including convenience stores.
Directors Erma Hendrix and Kenneth Richardson both noted that they and others had pushed for years for measures to limit proliferation of alcohol sales, but the issue suddenly came to the fore in the rush to stop the veterans center.
Mayor Mark Stodola tried to make it appear the ordinance was primarily a response to long complaints about a proliferation of alcohol outlets. He pointed to maps drawjn up by staff showing incidents of crime around such outlets. A conditional use permit for liquor outlets, if granted, would face a potential legal challenge. It effectively gives the city board control over allowing alcohol sales, a power specifically given to state regulators.
A couple of dozen people spoke along familiar lines about the vets center — fear of degradation of a residentiial neighborhood on the part of some who live nearby; defense of the needs of veterans from others.
I suspect the VA will proceed with its plans regardless of the outcome. It has a lease and a good plan for the facility. It will seek a conditional use permit if necessary. The public hearing arguments then would be repeated. Neighbors won't want it in their backyard. But what backyard neighbor will accept it or any of the other problematick businesses now opened up to an arbitrary decision-making policy. One neighbor said no area with residences and small businesses would be suitable for a facility that provided showers, meals and services to people who include homeless and those with mental and drug abuse problems. Which leaves what?
The real estate industry and representiatives of the convenience store business asked for a delay because of the broad impact of the ordinance and the hurryup consideration, less than a week's notice. Unforeseen consequences, as one said, are almost certain to arise. The ordinance was amended just today to cover convenience stores that sell only beer, not liquor. That's popular with some directors, such as Doris Wright, but an attorney emphasized the capriciousness of setting a policy that would allow only neighborhood unhappiness to bar an otherwise legitimate business.
The board broke shortly after 8 p.m. for a recess with 14 speakers still on the list to make comments. It returned for 90 more minutes of comments before deciding on a delay. It will be interesting to see if the VA forges ahead in the narrow window with work on its project (the owner of the building spoke of his investment and the legal and valid contract he'd entered after due diligence and notice to the city of the plans two months ago).
Further thoughts from after the break:
Powerful comments came from Herb Rule, a lawyer, Marine vet and founder of the Stewpot feeding program. He said race was an undercurrent in opposition to the vets center and he said those served at the Stewpot rarely caused problems. But he said the larger issue was the folly of emergency adoption of an ill-considered ordinance. A young mental health worker who plans to move to a home near the proposed vets center spoke powerfully, too, about race being a factor in fear of veterans and she said concerns about them were exaggerated from her own work experience. Ask youself, she asked the booard and neighbors, if fears would be the same about a young, homeless white woman as opposed to an older black man.
Speaker after speaker raised the issue of consequences for businesses and an overly broad brush was a theme developed by several directors in closing discussion.
Stodola closed by defending his interest in serving the homeless and veterans and argued that the process has always been about providing a citizen voice in the process. The city's record, unfortunately, is years of failure in providing a homeless center on its side of the river (North Little Rock takes money from Little Rock to do the job) and a persistence in trying to encourage the VA to join in the city's use of a poorly designed and aginig former resuce mission in a remote part of town. The VA says the building isn't suitable and it is prevented by federal law from sharing resources with non-veterans.
As finally written, the ordinance could have required conditional use permits for drug stores and grocery stores that sell beer and left many with questions about what, exactly, constituted a convenience store.