League of Women Voters raises concerns about Little Italy incorporation | Arkansas Blog

League of Women Voters raises concerns about Little Italy incorporation

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URBAN SPRAWL: Some tentacles were needed to bring in potential residents of a new city of Little Italy.
  • URBAN SPRAWL: Some tentacles were needed to bring in potential residents of a new city of Little Italy.

Officials of the League of Women Voters of Pulaski County have raised questions, though not formal opposition, about the incorporation of Little Italy, the remote community in northwestern Pulaski County.

This week, the county certified that enough signatures had been gathered for an incorporation petition of a seven-square-mile area about an hour's drive from Little Rock. 

County Judge Barry Hyde has tentatively set a hearing at 2 p.m. July 13 at the Quorum Court meeting room at which he has the option to approve or deny, but not modify, the proposal. His decision can be appealed to circuit court. By law, Hyde doesn't have a lot of room to maneuver in the decision-making, though he could decide a request was not just or proper.

The effort has been pitched as a means to improve services for the community, which numbers many residents of Italian descent who've long attended a small Catholic Church and settled the area 100 years ago. But there's circumstantial evidence that the effort is aimed at keeping the largely rural area from falling under the new county land use ordinance that was designed to protect the Lake Maumelle watershed.

The League of Women Voters, a major proponent of the watershed ordinance, has not taken a formal position on the Little Italy incorporation. But leaders came to me with concerns that it could spell failure of the land use ordinance. Here's their thinking: The limits on development and land use in the Lake Maumelle watershed produced by a four-year process are aimed at preventing an increase in the pollution load on the lake, a regional water supply. If a seven-square-mile area — plus the one-mile extraterritorial planning jurisdiction that a city can assert — is no longer covered by that county land use ordinance, it potentially throws the estimate on potential runoff out of whack. Realistically, the chances of tightening the controls on the rest of the watershed to make up for the loss of the Little Italy territory are remote.

Is this really about better services for the community? It seems a stretch. The city can't count on any more than $24,000 in state turnback for its estimated 380 residents (in five years, after the next Census, it could get some county sales tax money). Some money likely would have to be spent to contract with the sheriff's office for continued police protection. That money won't operate much by way of other city services, such as snow removal, as the Municipal League has noted or street work. The organizers have promised no tax increases (though they have mentioned franchise fees on utilities, which are essentially taxes because they are passed along to customers).

The incorporation effort happens to dovetail with the four-year discussion of the county land use ordinance. The area proposed for incorporation also is gerrymandered, with pipestem legs designed to reach out to people who want inclusion in a city. At the top of the list of reasons for incorporation in the city business plan are avoiding annexation by other cities and "protect property rights."

The new city could, of course, adopt subdivision and zoning regulations in keeping with those in the county ordinance, but given the opposition to the county ordinance from that area, it seems a longshot, League officials worry

Ruth Bell of the League said the group felt a "dilemma" about the issue. She said it recognized the right of any area with sufficient residents to seek incorporation. But it "obviously hurts" the watershed ordinance, she said.

Little Italy residents have insisted the drive was unconnected to the watershed protection ordinance. Outsiders may be skeptical, but ultimately it's  not a consideration in the county judge's review of the incorporation petition. There's some precedent that says Hyde could decide the area is too large to be considered for incorporation with only about 50 residents per square mile.

Is it good government to incorporate an area that would instantly have no land use controls and a population not interested in having any?

And Don Zimmerman, director of the Arkansas Municipal League, notes this fact of law: Once incorporated, Little Italy would be free to attempt to annex hundreds of square miles, all the way back to the city of Little Rock. In that neck of the woods, a significant number opposed the county land use ordinance and might like to be loosed from them, plus the three-mile extraterritorial jurisdiction that Little Rock exercises.

The Municipal League attempted to improve incorporation and annexation rules in the last legislature, but fell short. It would have required 350 signers, not 200, for incorporations, and placed a limit on how far a city could grow in each annexation election to 10 percent of a city's current size.

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