by Max Brantley
If it passes, it will be done over the wishes of the city director for that ward, Erma Hendrix.
If it passes, it's certain to prompt a lawsuit.
Development today: SI Property Investments of Grove, Okla., which owns the property and has a contract with the VA to lease it for the day center, has been at work cleaning around the building today. The building also, since Thursday, March 1, has had a tenant — the Brain Injury Association of Arkansas. It is a community welfare center currently allowed by right in the existing zoning for that commercial stretch of Main.
The city has cooked up an ordinance to require a conditional use permit for such facilities. It would appear to be too late now for this particular use by the Brain Injury Association. Drake Mann, attorney for SI Property, said the group works with disabled veterans and the Main Street location is an expansion of existing facilities elsewhere in Little Rock. Mann is an officer of the association and several VA health care workers are among its leadership. He said it hopes to work out a continuing relationship if the VA center is allowed to operate in the building.
That's a big "if." But Mann said his clients were "absolutely" prepared to sue if the city passes an ordinance to attempt to invalidate the use of the building after the lease has already been negotiated. He said the emergency clause was particularly ripe for challenge. The new ordinance attempts to stymie the VA use by applying its terms to "described uses," such as a community welfare center, and also says it applies to property uses "anticipated" at the time of passage of the ordinance. Mann notes that this language may create problems for the city beyond the baseline question of what is actually sufficient to meet the definition of "use" under the law. If a conditional use permit is required for all businesses with the described uses, would it not apply to the many small businesses already in existence that are described in the portion of the ordinance aimed at stopping the proliferation of small stores selling beer and wine around Little Rock? Mann noted a number of small businesses, such as Terry's in the Heights, sell alcohol in stores that occupy a portion of small strip centers and thus could find themselves covered under the new ordinance. Wouldn't they have to go back through the conditional use process now?
Mann said the city had apparently quelled opposition from the convenience store, grocery and gasoline lobbies by continuing to allow convenience stores with gas pumps by right and to require conditional use permits only for alcohol sellers with stores of less than 5,000 square feet. By carving off that significant opposition, Stodola may have the votes to beat the vets center on Main.
"It's incomprehensible to me," Mann said. "It's such a peculiar thing to reach out and do. A lot of political capital is being spent and I cannot describe for the life of me why. ... Whatever they hope to gain they ultimately offset by damage to the city's reputation for forthrightness and integrity." Amen.
There's certainly been no groundswell of support for Mayor Stodola and U.S. Rep. Tim Griffin in their fight to block this improved location for veterans, now served in a cramped facility about a mile away at 2nd and Ringo. Some neighbors, mostly a number of blocks removed from the site, have objected, but a number in the neighborhood have also been supportive. Griffin enticed the House VA Committee chair to Arkansas to buttress has case and he fled without talking to reporters or uttering a peep of meaningful protest about the new location. (You think maybe he saw the rest of Main Street north?) VA Secretary Eric Shinseki has said the VA upheld the letter of the law in seeking a suitable site for a veterans center.
The mayor has suggested from the first that he believes the VA could be pushed into the dump of a rescue mission he's slowly, slowly converting to a day facility for the non-vet homeless at a remote spot on Confederate Boulevard: That's not likely, Mann said. 1) Federal money can't be spent on non-veteran uses. 2) The VA specifically says its facility can't go in a 100-year flood plain. Mann says the city's Confederate location is in the floodplain.
Come tomorrow, city directors can choose a petty political agenda (an agenda contrary to the wishes of the ward's elected representative) or open arms for veterans. If the city ties the relocation up in court for years, that means the needs of fighting men and women will be tied up for years, too.
Don't be misled by glib talk of alternatives from Stodola and Griffin. They've produced none. Don't forget it was almost five years ago when Stodola led opposition that forced the VA to drop a plan to move to what is now an abandoned auto parts store directly across the street from a Salvation Army shelter. He claimed that property was ripe for redevelopment. Evaluate his arguments tomorrow for credibility with that history in mind.