Columns » Ernest Dumas

The power of one

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A discerning historian of modern Arkansas has for some years reckoned that the day had passed when a single powerful economic interest could have its way in the legislature when its goal clashed with a significant public interest. The railroad lobby at the turn of the 19th century and Arkansas Power and Light Co. and then Arkansas Louisiana Gas Co. in the 20th could call the shots in the Arkansas General Assembly at will, but nowadays lawmakers have to respond to so many competing public and private interests that no single power broker can exercise its will. That was a plausible theory supported by a fair amount of evidence the past quarter-century, but it turns out that it is far too premature. State Sen. Bob Johnson of Bigelow filed a bill last week that would effectively curtail the power of public water utilities to exercise eminent domain to protect the purity of public water supplies from real-estate developers. Before Johnson filed the bill (SB 230), 20 of the other 34 senators clambered to sign on as sponsors, assuring the bill’s unimpeded passage through the Senate. C. Hamilton Moses of the old Arkansas Power and Light and W. R. “Witt” Stephens at Arkla would marvel at the efficiency of Deltic Timber Corp., the giant real-estate company, or its phalanx of lobbyists. Ham and Witt could not have done it better, and Witt probably would not have. “It looks like I may have been wrong,” the historian lamented at week’s end. It is hard to imagine a more distinct conflict between private interest and the public welfare or one to which lawmakers owed more prayerful study. Instead, all it took was to learn who wanted the legislation. Deltic, which owns 433,000 acres in Arkansas and north Louisiana and developed the luxurious Chenal subdivisions in western Pulaski County, wants to build a 225-home subdivision on 1,170 acres on the south side of Lake Maumelle, the water supply of some 350,000 people in central Arkansas. The development at the confluence of the Maumelle watershed will be called The Ridges of Nowlin Creek. That development and another planned by wildcat developer Rick Ferguson would significantly raise the risk of contamination of the water supply. Central Arkansas Water wants Deltic to keep that critical piece of watershed in its pristine state or else the utility wants to buy the land to preserve that condition. Otherwise, it will take $60 million in treatment works to prevent the contamination of the water supply. If Deltic won’t preserve the land or sell, Central Arkansas Water can go to court and seek to condemn the land for a fair price that the court would determine. You would not think that the water company’s request that the land be kept in its natural condition was so outlandish. Deltic, after all, is a timber company and it could harvest the timber. It has assessed thousands of acres of woodlands out there as timber land so that it has to pay only $1.67 an acre in school, city and county taxes even though the land is held for upscale developments like Chenal and The Ridges at Nowlin Creek. On Jan. 21, Deltic advertised that it was offering wooded lots in the neighboring undeveloped Chenal area for prices of up to $246,000 per lot, many times the value that the company has placed on the land when it assessed at the courthouse for tax purposes. For comparison, check the assessment on your house. It’s on the books at its true market value. Deltic was a subsidiary of Murphy Corp., the global oil and gas exploration and production company headquartered at El Dorado, until 1996, when Murphy declared a stock dividend and spun the real-estate subsidiary off to shareholders. Deltic’s bill would effectively strip Central Arkansas Water and other regional water companies of the power of eminent domain to protect water supplies by making the proof so onerous that they could not prevail. Instead, developers could enter into voluntary agreements with the state Soil and Water Conservation Commission — not the waterworks — to preserve water quality if they thought it was necessary. In other words, the developers would decide if they were endangering the water supply and what to do about it, in collaboration, of course, with the obliging folks at Soil and Water. I said Witt Stephens probably would not have done it. So priceless was the public’s power of eminent domain that he once used his clout with the legislature to get it to grant him that power to condemn farmlands to lay a fertilizer pipeline, where the public interest was faint at best. Where it is compelling, the legislature 40 years later takes a powder.

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