Columns » Max Brantley

A false compromise

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There are developments in the controversy involving Central Arkansas Water and Deltic Timber, but first the background. Deltic owns just about all the piney woods from Little Rock to Morrilton, including some spectacular “view” acreage above Lake Maumelle. (The lake was created as a water source for the Little Rock water utility, now a regional supplier.) It pays about $1.50 an acre in taxes each year for this “timber property,” hoping to sell it for roughly $100,000 an acre for home construction. The choicest property is about a half-mile from the main water intake on Lake Maumelle, straight down a steep, rocky slope. This land, in what is known as Zone 1 of the watershed, is deemed particularly fragile environmentally. Just about any development, careful or not, could pollute the water and increase treatment costs. That’s why the utility has told Deltic it doesn’t want to see the land developed. Deltic is not accustomed to people saying no. It has received a number of favors from the water company over the years to keep its Chenal Valley golf courses green. When it wants to annex, the city board complies. Development impact fees? Perish the thought. Stunned by this “no,” Deltic took the nuclear option. It got Sen. Bob Johnson, who also owns land in the watershed, to sponsor a bill to virtually strip the utility of the ability to condemn land around the lake. This single-issue bill was rammed through the Senate by pre-arrangement, but the House wasn’t so easy. The bill is stymied there thanks to opposition from environmentalists, other utilities, city and county officials and more. So Deltic switched direction. It called in the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce (of which Deltic is a major financial supporter) to “facilitate” secret discussions, uncovered by the Times over the weekend. A key water commissioner, Jane Dickey, happens to have close ties with the chamber. Suddenly, the antsy water commission began to send signals that it might compromise. According to one proposal being floated by Dickey, it would agree not to condemn Deltic’s land if Deltic agreed not to do anything with it for two years, while a long-planned watershed management study proceeded. About this, Bruce McMath, the water utility’s attorney in a pending condemnation dispute, has cogent points. First, he wrote, a compromise with Deltic would anger the people who sacrificed to stand up to Deltic. Second, it would make water officials look stupid for asserting so emotionally (and Dickey was among them) that stopping construction on the Deltic ridge was essential. Third, it could ruin the utility’s case against others who might want to develop in the watershed. A moratorium also would give Deltic more time to game the system — time when the upright Jim Harvey might retire as water CEO and the tough Bill Stovall will no longer be House speaker. There are benefits to hanging tough. McMath wrote that “beating this bill could place CAW in the position of pushing some truly useful legislation next time around, which would give it some options other than condemnation.” If Deltic really is a good citizen, yet sure it won’t harm the lake, why not simply promise to await the outcome of the independent watershed management study before developing its land? Nothing else would be required, certainly not a commitment by the water utility that could tie its hands in protecting Lake Maumelle from despoilers.

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