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Safe for now

Kroger expansion to be discussed at Sept. 20 meeting

By CAROL ROLF Contributing Writer

This article was published August 15, 2010 at 3:25 a.m.

— Those who travel through Faulkner County see them every day - the small, one-story rock houses with brick trim, often sporting a herringbone pattern. Whether they know it or not, these travelers are seeing a part of the county’s history, one that some believe needs to be preserved.

These houses are the work of the late Silas Owens Sr. of Solomon Grove (now a part of Twin Groves), an African-American stonemason who pursued his craft from 1938 to 1955 in and around Faulkner County.

One of Owens’ houses sits on Prince Street in Conway, once considered the western outskirts of town, now a major thoroughfare. The house, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, is near a Kroger grocery store at Prince Street and Salem Road.

The store wants to add a second driveway off Prince Street to its property to expand its grocery business and add gas pumps. That driveway would cut through the lot where the rock house, known as the Joe and Nina Webb House, sits, precipitating the demolition, or removal, of the house. The house belongs to Joe Whisenhunt of Bee Branch, owner of Whisenhunt Investments in Little Rock, who hopes to sell the land to Kroger for its expansion.

A public hearing for a rezoning request from O-3 - restricted office district - to C-2 - neighborhoodcommercial district - and a conditional-use permit for gas pumps was scheduled to be held Monday during the Conway Planning Commission meeting.

However, Bryan Patrick, director of planning and development for the city of Conway, said in an e-mail Monday, “Whisenhunt Investments/Kroger has withdrawn their requests for a rezoning and conditional-use permit this month. They do not feel they are quite ready with their requests and neighborhood requests. They will reapply for the September planning commission meeting.” Next month’s planning commission meeting is 7 p.m.

Monday, Sept. 20, at the District Court Building on Parkway in Conway. The meetings are open to the public.

Patrick said there is no legal reason to prevent Whisenhunt from tearing down the house.

“There is no easement on it,” Patrick said. “They could tear it down tomorrow.” In a letter dated May 27, Ralph S. Wilcox, national register and survey coordinator for the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program in Little Rock, answered a communication from Whisenhunt about his intent to tear down the house: “Even though the property is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, there are no restrictions on the property, and the demolition can proceed as planned.” Patrick said the Kroger Co.

wants to expand the store to the west and south and add a newfaçade to the front.

“The expansion would double the size of the store,” Patrick said. “Plus, they want to build a gas station.” However, Patrick said the proposal made by the Kroger Co. has the second driveway off Prince Street located too close to an existing driveway to the adjacent First Security Bank branch.

“City ordinance states driveways must be no closer than 100 feet apart,” Patrick said. “As proposed, Kroger’s new driveway would only be 30 or 40 feet from First Security’s driveway.

As proposed, we could not grant the permit for the driveway. It would create too much traffic congestion and confusion.” Patrick said it was his understanding that Kroger is conducting talks with First Security to see if the bank might close its driveway and use a common driveway with the grocery store.

Not only do several neighbors who live near the grocery store oppose its expansion plan, members of the Old Conway Preservation Society oppose it as well. In an interview on July 19, Marianne Welch, president of the society, said all members of the group were asked to attend the planning commission meeting or “write to the commission with their concerns. If some solution can be found, that would be optimal.” Welch said she talked with James E. Hathaway Jr., a representative for the Whisenhunts, who said the Webb family (Joe Webb is deceased) is interested in moving the house to family land.

When contacted directly, Hathaway said, “We are working on a solution but will not have any comment until our plans are complete.” Welch said moving the house would be difficult for a number of reasons.

“One sticking point to that is it is very expensive to move a house,” Welch said, “and it would have to be dismantled very carefully and put back together very carefully.

“Our group would not be opposed to moving the house.

We are strictly a volunteer organization and cannot take on acquisition of a house. Even if we could, we could not manage the upkeep of it.” Upon learning of the deferral of Whisenhunt’s requests to the city planning commission on Wednesday, Welch said, “It is our understanding that Whisenhunt and Kroger are close to coming to a solution to move the house. I’m not sure where, but if that happens, we will have no further issue with the expansion proposal. Our main concern is to stop the demolition of the house.”

It was put on the National Register of Historic Places in October 2005.

Welch said in addition to the preservation of the Owens house, there seems to be other issues relating to the expansion of the grocery store.

“Several questions are yet un answered,” Welch said. “Have ap propriate feasibility studies been done by Kroger? At one point that store was to have been open 24 hours a day. What’s the need to expand it?

“The (Silas Owens) house is only a piece of the problem,” she continued. “Increasing the size of the store would mean increased traffic, rats, plus gas fumes from the pumps they want to install There are a lot of legitimate con cerns about it.”

Patrick said he expects “a lot of opposition” at the Sept. 20 planning commission meeting.

He said he believes the Kroger Co. is conducting a massive ex pansion program throughout the country.

“They want to buy the prop erty and then build their stores, he said. “They want to make sure everything is right with the property before they begin con struction. If they are not able to work this out on Prince Street my guess is they will look else where for another site.”

River Valley Ozark, Pages 135 on 08/15/2010

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