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Devils with the details

Little Rock’s activists study effluent to fight the affluent.


HOW MUCH MORE: BFI wants to build its landfill near UALR.
  • HOW MUCH MORE: BFI wants to build its landfill near UALR.
Quick! Answer these questions: How high will the BFI landfill in Geyer Springs be if the company gets an expansion permit? How much longer will it stay open? And what is 1,1 dichloromethane anyway? Why is the staff of Central Arkansas Water going ahead with condemnation of land Deltic Timber Co. wants to develop in Zone 1 of the Lake Maumelle watershed? Why can CAW offer Deltic Timber Co. an average of only $2,300 an acre for 705 acres of Deltic land when Deltic reports it got $27,700 an acre for undeveloped land last year? And where is Zone 1 anyway? What are the growth projections for the number of residents in the Little Maumelle River Basin, where a sewage treatment plant apparently won’t be located, versus the projections for an area near Pinnacle Mountain, where it apparently will? What’s an SSO, and when did the LRWU agree to build a new WWTP? And who’s going to pay for it anyway? It takes a maven to keep up with what’s happening in the village — like a skeptical newspaper editor who hammers away on his keyboard about the deals struck by sweet-talking developers with city leaders. But real change comes from the ground up, by folks willing to take on the city, the county and the state when business threatens to trample their interests. These are people who make the rounds of commission meetings every month, keep detailed notes and copies of correspondence with every agency, who call their neighbors and send out flyers and make sure nothing gets by them before whatever it is they’re fighting ends up OK’d with no debate by the city board of directors or the legislature. These gadflies come at their opponents like gnats at eyeballs, and annoy the hell out of them. They even annoy their fellow travelers, sometimes; yakking endlessly, drawing on the huge volume of data they’ve absorbed. In the years since the original David and Goliath did battle, the big guys got smart. Instead of facing the footsoldiers, they go straight to the top with their deals. Today’s Davids have become aggressive and suspicious and they don’t mind reading the small print. They bolster their troops via cellphones and listservs, a computerized mass e-mail like the one that long-time activist Kathy Wells created to allow downtown residents to discuss everything from stolen bikes to hypothetical street funding policies (the latter posted on the Fourth of July). Not all who raise hell are NIMBYs. Some are soldiering on several fronts, taking care of many backyards, and they range from the politic to the bold. Audubon of Arkansas, which so far has fended off mining interests in Gillam Park on the east, is keeping a watchful eye on the BFI landfill in the central city, where Audubon has been working to clean Fourche Creek. The Citizens to Protect the Maumelle Watershed group is noisier, working to stymie Deltic Timber’s plan to develop homes in the watershed of the city water supply; its coordinator’s first plunge into city politics sent her swimming upstream to get the city’s excavation ordinance enforced. Some NIMBY issues are being fought by neighborhoods that have coalesced over other issues — fresh from a victory over multifamily housing plans, they are now protesting the sewer utility’s choice for a new sewage treatment plant site in west Little Rock. These unrelenting June bugs batting at the screen doors of business are the newest enlistees in a history of community activism that reaches back to ACORN and beyond. They are finding a nexus — if not total agreement on the issues — at the local Sierra Club chapter’s meetings, where over boiled shrimp and beer they report to one another on what Goliaths A, B and C are up to. Sometimes grass-roots efforts win big, the activists’ activist Jim Lynch says: The switch to some ward elections, landlord laws and Deltic’s legislative defeat are proof that regular folks, when they get organized, can beat powerful interests. Currently, the civic-minded, get-in-your-facers are loading their slingshots over three hot issues whose minutiae, for the most part, only an activist could love: trash, sewage and development runoff into Lake Maumelle. Here’s an update, told largely through their eyes: The Browning-Ferris landfill expansion In a spot where three creeks come together in the center of Little Rock, near 3,000 acres the city hopes one day will be a showcase nature park for fishing, canoeing and hiking, is a 183-acre dump. Browning-Ferris Industries has operated the landfill on Mabelvale Pike south of Asher since 1991, when it bought the Worth James Airport property, 70 acres of which had been used as a landfill, in a wetland that today would be protected from dumping. The city annexed the land in 1994 and grandfathered in the landfill. Future expansion added 17 acres to the dump and raised its closure elevation to 310 feet above sea level. In 2004, BFI announced that rather than close the dump, it would apply to increase it 78 acres horizontally and 150 feet vertically — a height that some say would have been visible from University Avenue. The horizontal increase would have filled in several acres of floodwater containment the landfill is required to operate and would need more cover dirt. BFI proposed to buy the 123-acre Coleman Dairy property to its east, where it would excavate a 40-acre wide, 50-foot deep hole to provide dirt as well as “dry pond” acreage. The proposal would have added 28 years to the life of the landfill. Southwest Little Rock neighborhoods — city stepchildren beset by crime, a geology of shifting clays that tend to crack house foundations, and parks set in lowlands that flood in big rains — have fought expansion of the landfill since its origination. They’ve complained of smells and flood-propelled garbage and worried that toxins leaching from the landfill could be poisoning their land, creeks and lakes. This time around, however, the usually friendless BFI has managed to win over some activists and drive a wedge in the normally united Southwest front. Two of the most vocal opponents to landfill expansion are Pat Dicker, District 7 JP on the Quorum Court, and her husband, Herb, who’ve lived in Meadowcliff for 30 years. Talk about your dedicated and detail-oriented community sentries. At a Sierra Club meeting at the Oyster Bar restaurant, the subject of the city’s position on the landfill comes up; Herb Dicker produces a copy of the minutes of the June 17, 1997, City Board meeting on BFI’s last expansion. The following week, standing in front of City Hall, a reporter asks about a 2002 Pulaski County Regional Solid Waste Commission study; Dicker has the study on him, in one of his many document binders. Over eggs and a stack of binders at Denny’s, the Dickers laid out their credentials. She’s got a bachelor’s degree, earned after her children were grown, in health education; he’s retired from the Air Force and worked with both the State Police and the Pulaski County sheriff’s office. They’ve always put community before recreation or “monetary concerns,” Herb Dicker says. The Dickers have fought apartment developers that ruin roads, a medical waste incinerator that sought a home in Southwest, clear-cutting developers (who, they note, largely ignore the city’s tree ordinance — “the fine is so minimal, they thumb their noses at it”). Their focus now is on the environmental threat they think is inherent in piling tons of garbage in the middle of a wetland, no matter what sort of liners separate the trash from the creeks or how well the leachate drains work. Audubon Arkansas, whose board of directors has voted to oppose the landfill, shares the Dickers’ worries on these points, even in the absence of hard evidence that the landfill is now harming the wetlands. “A lot of this is fear of the unknown,” Audubon director Ken Smith said. “I am concerned about the mass of waste and cover soil and weight of that and the impact that could have on contamination of ground and surface water,” he said. Audubon, which is working to complete a $3 million clean-up and reforestation of the Fourche, planted 12,000 trees along that creek on the Coleman property several years ago, and expressed interest in buying the property. Much of the former dairy is in wetlands; Audubon is concerned about BFI’s plans to turn it into a landscaped park. The Dickers also believe the landfill contributes to flooding in the area, and that its location over a fault line — inactive though it is — is dangerous. And the park — they’ll believe it when they see it. BFI has previously promised a park. In 1997, minutes of the meeting show, BFI attorney Chuck Nestrud told the Quorum Court the company had contracted with an agency called the “Wildlife Habitat Environmental Council” to evaluate the landfill site as a wildlife preserve so when BFI capped off the landfill in 10 to 15 years, it could build such a preserve. It would also build a community education facility on the property. Eight years later, the Dickers said, BFI is still playing the park card. But the park promise has tempted former foes — most notably Joa Humphreys, who was once quoted in the newspaper as saying “it is stupidity of the PC&E to grant a permit to anybody to put a landfill in a floodway.” (The PC&E is the predecessor to the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality, the agency that regulates landfills.) BFI has been throwing several bones to Humphreys and others in the Geyer Springs area: With their support, the company will reduce its request to add 150 feet to the top of the landfill to only 90 feet, or 360 feet above sea level. It will also move dirt dug from the Coleman property to the dump on a conveyor belt over Mabelvale Pike rather than trucking it across. BFI lawyer Nestrud says he’s discussed deeding to the city of Little Rock airspace over the dump at the permitted cap, putting an invisible, and final, lid on the landfill. Once BFI has rezoned the dairy property to a Planned Industrial Development and has won the OK of the county waste management board and its ADEQ permit, the company will begin construction on Coleman Park, which will feature a “sports complex” the first year, and eventually a fishing lake, 46 acres of “constructed wetlands” and a boat launch. The company will also commit, at a cost of $175,000, to building or renovating property for a Geyer Springs Neighborhood Association community center. BFI’s representatives have worked hard to cultivate support in Southwest. Nestrud is on the board of directors of Step Up, a nonprofit organization for needy children and women that Humphreys formed. Dale Stevener, BFI’s site manager, has made it a point to attend Geyer Springs neighborhood meetings, and initiated a program that each year awards and holds in trust $10,000 scholarships for 10 students at Geyer Springs Elementary School. They’ve won over Betty Snyder, head of the Geyer Springs Neighborhood Association, and Worldwide Janitorial Services owner James McCarthy. McCarthy is desperate to give the teen-agers of Southwest Little Rock something new to keep them off the streets. Getting BFI to offer concessions and build the park is “a win-win situation,” he said. Snyder said her group has been accused of being bribed into being BFI’s new best friends, but she said she thinks of it as more a “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” agreement. She said she intends to hold BFI’s feet to the fire by way of “contracts” the company will sign with the neighborhood association to stick to its promises. Has she hired a lawyer to look at the contracts? She thinks a second. “I’m sure the city would help us,” Snyder said. “We’re willing to enter into any agreements,” Nestrud said. “We want to be obligated.” Sometimes gadflies, they do get weary. “I’m a realist,” Humphreys explained. “I can dream just so long. The landfill is there. As long as it’s done in a proper manner … to keep it from being a disaster … why fuss with it?” The Ridges at Nowlin Creek Nestrud and his public relations person, Craig Douglass, are also the point people in Deltic Timber Co.’s effort to develop as residential 1,170 acres near Lake Maumelle, the city’s water supply. That puts Deltic at odds with Central Arkansas Water, which has offered the company $3.8 million for 705 acres in Zone 1 of the Maumelle watershed — or condemnation. Earlier this year, Deltic persuaded the state Senate to approve a bill that would have taken away the right of all state water utilities to acquire land by eminent domain unless the utilities could prove that land alterations would have a “material adverse impact” on the quality of the public water supply. The bill would have allowed those who develop in watersheds to enter into “voluntary” stewardship agreements. Senate passage of the bill, carried by Bob Johnson of Bigelow, who had previously been foiled by CAW in his bid to buy land in the watershed, caused an uproar in Little Rock. Drawing with a finger on a greasy tablecloth at the Oyster Bar, Jim Lynch named the circles of the politically active: The inner circle of those who always know the latest travesty, the middle circle of those who’ve read about it and are sympathetic to people like Lynch, and the outer circle of those who would be sympathetic if they’d been paying attention. When Deltic’s bill passed, a wide-eyed Lynch exclaimed, the folks in the outer circle were suddenly experts in Robert’s Rules and “coming up to me and saying we’ve got to do something about Sen. Bob Johnson or we’ve got to make sure that [Benny] Petrus fellow doesn’t win Speaker of the House!” He shook his head in wonder that Deltic — apparently — didn’t anticipate the fuss, which sank it in a House committee. “This is about water, folks!” Lynch said. Kate Althoff, 43, a single mother who doesn’t have to work outside her home and feels deeply about community issues (a profile that makes companies like Deltic cringe), has emerged as the leader of the fight against Deltic. The coordinator of Citizens to Protect the Maumelle Watershed, Althoff says a “core group” of about a dozen people are trying to stay current with Deltic’s dealings with the water utility’s commission. Commissioner Jane Dickey sought a compromise during the legislative session that would have stopped condemnation by the utility in exchange for Deltic’s withdrawal of its bill. Three other commissioners — all from Little Rock — are also suspected quaffers from Deltic’s trough; Althoff and others are worried they will vote to stop CAW from condemning Deltic land. (To answer the question first posed at the beginning of this story about land prices: Deltic has scoffed at CAW’s monetary offer for its land, and the press has noted that its annual report puts its average undeveloped land sales at $27,000 an acre. But that was land in the Chenal development, sold by lots. The price, on average, is the same by which Deltic itself sold land next door to Warren Stephens’ private Alotian golf club.) Althoff was shoveling mulch at the Statehouse Convention Center in February in preparation for the Garden Club’s annual event there when she learned that SB 230 — Deltic’s bill — had passed the Senate. She said she went straight to the Capitol in her dirty jeans and tried, unsuccessfully, to collar her representative, Jeremy Hutchinson. “I was scared,” Althoff said. “I knew they could do this stuff.” She’d seen developer Lou Schickel bury the city’s excavation ordinance under 60,000 dump trucks worth of dirt he’ll dig from a hillside at Highway 10 and Woodland Heights Road for the Pleasant Ridge Town Center mall. It was that ordinance — and her daughter’s tears at seeing a pile of trees cleared for an office development on Highway 10 — that propelled Althoff into community action. Disheartened by the weakness of the ordinance, Althoff considered washing her hands of future community action — until she tapped into SB 230. Her first move: making phone calls and forming a group to fight the bill. She spearheaded a radio campaign that aired on 14 stations — with $5,000 of her own money. She almost pulled the ads at one point, she said, when she realized “that the commission was not an ally.” She drives to Lake Maumelle, shows a reporter a map that delineates Zone 1 — the part of CAW’s watershed closest to the pipe that carries the cleanest water to the city. She drives to the gate of the Alotian Club, a private golf course in the lake’s watershed that Deltic has pointed to in support of its own bid. Althoff says the comparison doesn’t wash — developer Warren Stephens moved the club back from Zone 1 at CAW’s request — but notes that the golf course too has had problems with runoff. A holding pond failure caused temporary turbidity in a small portion of Maumelle south of the Highway 10 bridge and west of the club. “It’s not about development; it’s how it’s done,” Althoff said. She believes it’s only common sense that CAW should be able to condemn land to protect water quality. If the watershed management consultant that’s just been hired finds that development is fine, Althoff said, Deltic could just buy the property back. Deltic’s Nestrud counters that fears the watershed will necessarily be tainted are unscientific. “The lake will not recognize a difference,” he said, because the development’s holding ponds and 1,300-foot distance from the lake will remove any threats to the water. Althoff also believes that Jim Lynch is right when he says Deltic’s opposition to condemnation prior to the completion of the management study is simply a way to stall until the 2007 legislature meets. Deltic is “ruthless,” Lynch told a Sierra Club meeting, and warned that the race for speaker of the House is crucial to keeping the watershed undeveloped, and that the water commission should be watched like a hawk. But why, Althoff wonders, must people with jobs and children and other valid distractions, work so hard to make sure their leaders do the right thing. “Can’t we depend on you guys to keep the water clean?” she said, exasperated. (Not if state Rep. Benny Petrus is chosen Speaker of the House. In an interview with the Women’s Legislative Caucus, Petrus said he didn’t have a problem with Deltic’s desires to develop on the slopes of Lake Maumelle. He has a house on Lake Hamilton, he explained, and the water’s fine. It was a disingenuous answer. He’ll never drink from Lake Hamilton: Hamilton, surrounded by development and crowded with skiers and boaters, was created for recreation, not drinking, and has been plagued over the years by pollution.) The Water Commission meets at 2 p.m. the day this paper comes out — Thursday, July 14 — at the Little Rock Waterworks building at 221 E. Capitol Ave. It is expected to decide then whether to stick with earlier decisions to condemn the Deltic property if the company wouldn’t sell. The sewage treatment plant For two years, NIMBY types with deep pockets have been raising a stink over where a new sewage treatment plant should be built in West Little Rock. But site after site selected by the utility’s Sanitary Sewer Committee has gone down the toilet in the face of neighborhood opposition and the realization somewhere along the line that the law required the site to be built in the city limits if at all possible. Some headlines from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette suggest the ebb and flow of committee decisions: “Two Rivers Park a likely choice” — Sept. 11, 2003 “43 acres of farmland ranked No. 1 for new LR sewer plant” — April 20, 2004 “LR sewer plant site crowding the Ranch/Top location has residents fuming” — Jan. 20, 2005 “The Ranch fends off sewer plant, for now” — Feb. 1, 2005 “Possible LR sewer plant put forth” (on Pinnacle Road) — March 17, 2005 “Pinnacle Road site picked for LR’s new sewage treatment plant.” — April 21, 2005 In mid-March, the panel, which had been butting heads with developer Gene Pfeifer since January, decided to do an about face and follow Pfeifer’s lead. It decided to consider land Pfeifer offered to sell the utility, 13 acres on a ridge just within the city limits south of East Pinnacle Road, a mile south of Pinnacle Mountain State Park and half a mile east of state Highway 300. Now they’ve made Mary Dornhoffer — and 20 other residents of Pinnacle Valley — mad. “It was slam-bam put together,” Dornhoffer said. “Data was just pulled out of the air” at a quickly called meeting to discuss the new site, she said. The president of the Pinnacle Neighborhood Association and a medical writer and researcher for the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences showed a reporter her neatly organized neighborhood association notes on the sewage treatment plant’s progress west toward them, a LRWU comparison of the Pinnacle Road and Ranch sites, and a topo map. The site, she notes, had previously been ruled out as unbuildable — too steep, too rocky and three miles uphill from the pumping station — by Carter and Burgess, the independent engineering firm the LRWU hired in 2003 to choose the site. But these facts, made in a “splendid presentation” by her neighborhood to the site selection committee, were ignored, the panel members not even looking up, she said. “Do they [the city] ever listen to communities instead of developers?” she wondered. In contrast is the 25-acre site rejected because of opposition from the upscale neighborhood it adjoins, The Ranch. The site is only 2,500 feet upstream of the pump station. It would not require rezoning. Construction at the site would cost $1.3 million less than at the Pinnacle Road site. The Ranch site is flatter than the latest choice for the plant. It would require building a $1 million extension of Katillus Road, more than will be spent to build a road to the currently unreachable Pinnacle Road site. So why not The Ranch site? The utility’s comparison resorts to fortune-telling, predicting that by building further west, on Pinnacle Road, the plant will serve western development more cheaply and save the city $2.1 million in the future. It figured those savings into the cost of the two projects to make them come out closer to even — somewhere around $23 million. But Dornhoffer won’t let the world forget that in January, the utility predicted growth near The Ranch over the next 20 years would be three times greater than growth west of Highway 300. The real reason The Ranch site’s being tossed: Powerful resistance from the Ranch and others. Pfeifer and two other landowners have declared they will not sell and will sue in court to stop condemnation, a process that will take time and money. The wastewater utility is running out of time — the terms of the federal court settlement required it to have a site for the plant selected by 2004 (a deadline it’s missed) and have it operating by 2007. It will also take money to litigate — more, one must suppose, than the $1.3 million more it would take to build in The Ranch. That the plant has to be built is a given: It’s part of an agreement the Little Rock Wastewater Utility made in 2000 to settle a sewage overflow suit. Wastewater utility CEO Reggie Corbitt and sewer panel member Jim Pender were both out of town and could not be reached for comment about the site choice. But in previously published articles, Corbitt defended the choice as being the path of least resistance. “Our recommendation was based on the fact that we have a reluctant but willing seller,” he was quoted as saying after the panel vote in April. Pender, who took on spokesman duties for the panel, said the Pinnacle Valley tract was “more compatible” with the area and would affect fewer residents than the Ranch site. The panel has promise that new technology will make the treatment plant inoffensive. “If somehow we could drop this plant out there in the middle of the night, they’d never know it’s there,” Pender was quoted as saying. Lynch, asked by an opponent of the Pinnacle Road site why the Sierra Club was not taking sides, noted that it was the club that had sued the sewer utility, and won the construction of the new treatment plant as part of the settlement. Lynch said Corbitt was “doing the best he can” to deal with the sanitary sewer overflows that prompted the suit and was under pressure to meet the suit’s deadline. Corbitt has also said that unless the new plant gets started soon, the utility may have to call a moratorium on new sewer hook-ups. How is it to be built? By current users of the sewer system — not the anticipated growth in west Little Rock that the system is expected to serve. That fact has people like Dornhoffer and Lynch demanding that the city put in place impact fees on developers who tie in to the new system. Dornhoffer, who like her neighbors is on a septic tank and won’t benefit from the sewer system, says her committee is also considering litigation. “But we will work with the Wastewater Utility first,” she said. The powers that be, she said, always tout what Developer A or Developer B “have done for the city” when they bend the rules to accommodate them. But Dornhoffer, who cut her teeth in community action in a previous battle with Pfeifer, says developers are motivated by self-interest. Of course, aren’t we all? Dornhoffer’s previous tussle with Pfeifer was over his proposal to develop a large apartment complex on Highway 10 west of Wal-Mart. She recalled that the City Board of Directors deferred a vote on the rezoning for the apartments four times. “In the end,” she said, Pfeifer “backed off in exchange for a zoning change to commercial elsewhere … so he really got what he wanted.” Dornhoffer then made a failed bid for the Quorum Court, losing to Dan Greenberg. She’s not eager to run again. “The exposure I got is politics is a slippery slope into a place I don’t want to go.” But at a gathering in front of City Hall for a photograph, Pat Dicker urged Dornhoffer to run again. “It’s funny,” Dornhoffer told a reporter. “I’m not usually up on current affairs. You move out to a rural site, and it’s a lot of work controlling the things that want to come in.” CORRECTION The multifamily residential development sought by Gene Pfieifer was north, not west, of Highway 10, as reportd in the Arkansas Times July 14. The Times also incorrectly reported that a site near The Ranch that was proposed for a new sewer plant would not require rezoning; the Little Rock Wastewater Utility would have had to get a conditional use permit to build there.

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