Columns » Warwick Sabin

Eminent insensitivity

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The three houses across the street from Brenda Brown’s home are vacant, their owners having moved out during the past few weeks. She is thinking about leaving, too, even though she was born in this modest residence on Harrington Street and raised her children and grandchildren here. “This house is important to me,” Brown says. “In fact, it is all I have. But I don’t want to get up every morning and look at a darn fence.” We’re talking on her front porch, interrupted occasionally by the deafening sounds of airplane engines. Brown lives within a few hundred feet of one of Little Rock National Airport’s runways, and that makes her eligible for a buy-out and relocation as part of the airport expansion plan. Brown is no rabble-rouser. Hers was one of several homes where I paid unexpected visits, and the tone of her comments was straightforward and unemotional. But she has good reason to be more agitated than she was. Her choice is to listen every day to airplanes taking off across the street or leave the house where she was born. And as she ponders the difficult question of whether to move, she has been provided very little information about the process of selling her home, which could cause her serious financial distress. “I’m on Social Security, barely scraping along,” Brown said. “They sent an appraiser, and they said I could have my own done. That’s money I don’t have, so I’m not getting into that.” Brown owns her home “lock, stock and barrel,” and she can’t afford to take on a mortgage. She said repeatedly that she doesn’t want to stand in the way of progress, she just wants to be compensated fairly, which to her means getting only enough money to move into a comparable house somewhere else. That seems fair enough. However, even though her fate is in the hands of the Little Rock Airport Commission, Brown receives very little in the way of information from the authorities. They still won’t share the results of the appraisal they conducted. “If their price is not something I can do, I will be right here with airplanes flying over my head,” Brown said. Other people in the neighborhood shared similar stories. One woman, who has lived in her house for 41 years, said she has a lien on her deed and will have to take whatever the city offers, and she expects to be out of her house in two to three weeks. A few blocks away, a man who keeps an immaculate front yard is confused because city officials told him that if he sells his home, he has to leave all of the fixtures, even though the structure will be demolished. This is simply not the way our residents should be treated. If anything, our public officials ought to be bending over backwards to reassure citizens that they will be accorded respect and dignity as they make a significant sacrifice for the good of the city. Instead, the people losing their homes are an afterthought. Even as the expansion plan was already being implemented, residents didn’t know exactly which properties would be affected. In response, the airport commission recently held a few perfunctory public meetings, but they did not even have maps on hand to show which houses are slated for acquisition. “They have never asked for them,” Pat Sellars, the airport facilities director, told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. “Since they asked for them, we shall provide them.” Why didn’t anyone think about that beforehand? All you have to do is put yourself in the place of the residents who will be forced to move to understand that the city should have done more to explain the terms and procedures of the relocation process. Everyone in the neighborhood should have been individually contacted a long time ago and provided all relevant information. And yet, only last week an airport commissioner suggested the commission visit Louisville, Ky., to learn how the airport there handled its relocation efforts. This after plenty of residents have already moved or are about to move. There is still time, however, to make sure people like Brenda Brown are treated fairly and with sensitivity. She shouldn’t have to beg the city for information and a decent price for her home. City officials should be going out of their way to make sure the residents are informed and satisfied with the process. I support the plans to expand our airport, and I believe the project is vital to the advancement of our city. At the same time, those whose lives are adversely affected should be treated with deference, and should at least be able to live as well as they were before the city decided it needed their property.

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