The amendment that stalls the Maumelle Watershed zoning ordinance is "really just trying to kill the land-use regulations in the watershed," according to Pulaski Count Judge Buddy Villines. "If it goes through, I think it will do that."
Questions are beginning to circulate about just why JP Tyler Denton, a newly elected Democrat and generally seen as friendly to conservation concerns, proposed the amendment, which you can see a copy of here: Tyler_s_admendment_2-26-13.pdf. Passed at Tuesday night's meeting of the Pulaski County Quorum Court, it would delay implementation of the ordinance for four years and put in place some restrictions and a moratorium on large-scale development. There is heated debate about whether it will provide sufficient safeguards during the potential four-year delay. It also establishes an independent advisory board of relevant stakeholders to once again hash out the issues and make recommendations about possible amendments to the ordinance.
"This allows us a fresh start to get vested parties around the table and think through what people can live with and what they can’t live with and see if a consensus can be built," Denton said in a phone interview. "And if it can, we’re going to produce a piece of legislation that can once and for all end this fight. Passing this piece of legislation was not going to end the debate."
I suggested to Denton that it was hard to believe that any legislation would end the fight. It's a contentious issue and the various parties have vigorous disagreements. Indeed, there were landowners at the Quorum Court that argued the ordinance went too far and environmentalists who argued it did not go far enough.
Denton acknowledged as much but said, "I think if you create a bottom-up process where everybody has a seat at the table and can have buy-in to why things are being voted on or proposed in the manner that they are, than I think that eliminates people from saying to us that this is a top-down approach, and 'we had no say.'"
For Villines, the hashing out has already taken place.
Most of the people there just didn’t want regulations, period. Second, a few people wanted more stringent than it is and won’t yield on that point….We’ve been at an impasse for several months. It’s time for a decision. Unfortunately it got deferred and I think the community lost.
The problem with delaying it — the idea that all those divergent opinions are going to come together, if they do it will be on something much less effective than this. We’ve worked for years on trying to find something that would protect the water but trying to be fair to property owners. You’re not going to get any more compromise other than gutting the thing.
Villines said that as many as ten JPs had committed to vote for the ordinance.
Based on what people had said it would have gotten done last night and people would have known that the water was going to be protected. Now they don’t know. I’m real concerned that it won’t be....It was probably the most important issue for this community county-wide. To get blindsided at the end is disheartening. The community’s water is now exposed.
As for Denton, Villines said, "Just before the meeting he was all for protecting the water. And then all of a sudden, he’s not."
Denton was adamant that his amendment would actually strengthen safeguards for the water, calling them "the most stringent in the history" of the watershed. "This is a victory for water conservation and consensus building," he said.
It's that latter point that seems to be driving Denton if we take him at his word. He continually stressed dismay that so many people at the Quorum Court meeting were upset, unhappy with the direction of the process and bitter about the ordinance. He said that listening to his own constituents, he was concerned that it was split about 50-50. He believes that "getting everyone sitting down at the table" can change the dynamic.
Let’s create an environment that fosters mutual understanding. If people are willing to do that, I’m confident that this can be resolved. We as a civilization have gone through so much more, surely we have the capabilities and goodness of our being to get through this... And given all the things that I’ve gone through I felt like the best opportunity was just to call a time out, remove emotions.
One group that won't be at the table is Villines and the county. "This whole idea of creating another body to look at it one more time, I'm not participating and neither will our staff," he said. "We took it as far as could, working with everyone for years...At some point, you've got to make a decision. And if it's deferred for another four years, I'm not going to ask our folks who worked so hard to get this to a point to do the whole thing again."
For his part, Denton believes that though the amendment sets up the moratorium for four years, it won't stall the ordinance for that long and the new independent body will be able to come up with a solution with relative speed.
"I don’t think, nor do I want, this to drag out for four years...I will see to it that it doesn’t," he said. "I don’t want this to drag out for two years."
Denton understands that folks are worried about delay tactics by opponents of watershed protection. He said that was a "real concern. And if I see this as a delay tactic on anybody’s part, I will jettison this amendment so fast, and we’ll go back to that ordinance. I am not for delay, I am not for stalling something, I am not for waiting four years to see what happens."
Of course, whatever Denton's intentions, delay at least in the short term is the practical impact of his amendment. At least for now, the week has a been a victory for opponents of the ordinance. Brent Stevenson, who has lobbied for Deltic Timber and the Koch brothers, tweeted "Tyler Denton is a public servant with honor and dignity and sensitivity to deal with complex issues."
Denton told me that he spoke with Stevenson during the campaign and again in January but has never spoken with him about the amendment. He said that he had listened to a variety of people and groups but had not discussed the amendment with a lobbyist.
Denton repeatedly stressed his credentials as a loyal Democrat and said that it was difficult to step across party lines to do what he felt was right (he joined six Republicans and one other Democrat in voting for the amendment).
"This is going to be the most important issue that I legislate as a public servant in my career," he said. "We have to get it right. We can’t afford another failed opportunity that just continues a battle and wages endless war with landowners or conservationists or other vested parties....Deep down inside my gut feeling said we can do better. There could be a better piece of legislation."