MAUMELLE — Maumelle Mayor Mike Watson said he tried to buy a piece of property six years ago that might have allowed the city to avoid a controversy over where to build a fire station.
Now, the city is going back to look at that property as one of its alternate sites.
Several homeowners object to a plan to build a fire station in city-owned open space near Club Manor Drive and Odom Boulevard South.
Many said they weren’t aware when a bond issue was passed in 2012 that the station would be built on the green space; the mayor said it always was the site under discussion.
The proposed station would replace the city’s oldest station on Millwood Circle and provide better coverage for the south part of the city, officials said.
City Council member Preston Lewis, who represents the ward that houses most of the residents who object to building the station in the open space, said officials are looking elsewhere to build the station.
“In my mind, I’m about 98 percent certain that it will not go there,” Lewis said of the open space.
“We saw a huge negative reaction from the citizens; it was one of the largest-attended council meetings I’d ever seen,” Lewis said of a previous meeting.
City Council member Jan Hogue said the open space is “obviously not the space for it.”
The mayor said he is looking at other sites, but it depends on what price the city can negotiate for other property.
A meeting to discuss alternate sites for the fire station is planned for April 21, when the mayor said he hopes to have a recommendation for other sites.
The land Watson wanted to buy in 2008 is across the street from the property that prompted some residents’ concerns.
The mayor, a former volunteer firefighter, said an “in-house” study that Maumelle firefighters conducted in 2005 showed that Club Manor Drive at Odom Boulevard South was a good general location for a second fire station, as well as Murphy Drive at Maumelle Boulevard.
Station 1, which includes administrative offices, opened in early 2010 on Murphy Drive, the mayor said, at one of the locations the study suggested.
Watson said he negotiated in July 2008 to buy 2 acres on Club Manor Drive, west of Kroger and south of First Christian Church, “because I knew it was going to be an issue putting a fire station in somebody’s backyard, so I was going to circumvent it at that time.”
The council didn’t want to buy the property then, he said.
“They didn’t want to spend the money. It was going to be a little over $400,000 for those 2 acres,” he said. “I was trying to be a little proactive at the time. The council gave me the direction at that time: No, we’ll use the open property.”
In 2012, Maumelle residents approved a $15 million bond issue, including $2.4 million to build the fire station. The station’s location wasn’t placed on the ballot, Watson said, because if it had to change, another election would be required.
“In my mind, it was very clear that the land we were going to build it on was that open space,” Watson said.
“All discussions I had with the council and constituents during the ordinance approval and the subsequent election were always directed at constructing the fire station on the open-space property south of the Kroger store,” he said.
The mayor also said that on Nov. 6, 2013, during a budget workshop, the council was provided a schematic site plan of the proposed fire station for that location.
“I do not recall anyone expressing concerns over the location at that time,” Watson said.
“It’s open space, and in our rules and regulations in our zoning laws, you can build in an open space,” Watson said, including ball fields. “Just because something is zoned open space doesn’t mean that it’s devoid of all structures.”
Lewis said “a lot of people here built their homes in the ’70s and ’80s, and the expectations that open space won’t be developed are quite high.”
Lewis said he wrote a letter to then-Fire Chief George Glenn expressing the need to communicate openly with residents about the proposed site because Lewis knew it was going to be “a very sensitive issue.”
Building on the green space behind several homes would require a conditional-use permit granted by the planning commission and city council, Watson said.
The mayor said residents of the Club Manor neighborhood told him in discussions this month, “We want you to at least explore other alternatives, and if it’s fiscally not responsible to do it, we can work with you.”
“I wouldn’t say it’s off the table,” Watson said, “because we haven’t even negotiated a price yet, on any property.”
Hogue is the only council member still serving who was on the council in 2008.
“To my knowledge, nothing was done after that attempt to buy land,” Hogue said, referring to Watson’s proposal. “Then, after the citizens approved the bond issue, I don’t believe the subject was ever brought back of where [the station] would be put. We thought it would be brought back to the council for more consideration.
“We did not have a bond issue for the fire department. I don’t think we even had [the station at] the northwest end of town completed.
We would have been buying it with no definite plan. We would have been buying land for the city to own,” Hogue said. “In that time frame, … we were in the process of losing our fire chief. Maybe it fell through the cracks.”
Chief George Glenn officially retired Dec. 31 to take a job out of state, and Maumelle Fire Marshal John Payne was named interim fire chief.
“The citizens felt like they were not properly informed, and I don’t have any reason to disagree with that,” Hogue said.
“It should have been brought back,” she said of the location. “I do think the open space is obviously not the space for it.
“We have told them we will look for somewhere else, and we will look for somewhere else. We want to be getting something that the price is not horrible.”
The 6.04-acre tract, which Watson said a Springfield, Mo., company owns, is available for less than it was in 2008, he said.
Watson said he doesn’t know if the owners now will be willing to sell just 2 acres of the property.
Bond proceeds can be used to buy land, Watson said.
“If we do that, though, it will use money that was purposed for the construction cost, unless the actual construction cost is less than [the] estimate,” Watson said. “I had a 10 percent contingency built into the construction-cost estimate. The council could choose to take the land-purchase amount out of reserve funds.”
Lewis said he supports the homeowners who oppose the site, although he didn’t think noise would have been a problem on the open space. The homeowners’ property values would have “taken a ding,” with a fire station there, he said.
Pat Smith, 66, who lives on Hogan Drive about 1,500 feet from the open space, said he had “no clue” the fire station might be built there.
The wording of the ballot, he said, made it sound like property would be purchased somewhere. He voted for the bond issue.
“I don’t think anybody misled the voters. I think there was not good transparency,” Smith said. “Mike [Watson] and I have had several meetings face to face, and we leave very amicably.”
Smith said he doesn’t believe a fire station on the open space would hurt his property value, but it would impact the homes closer to the proposed site.
“I don’t believe, ethically, it is right for someone to depreciate a property owner’s property by redoing the zoning,” he said. “They may be saving money, but our point to them, I think they have an ethical obligation to compensate the people they’re hurting.”
Smith said if there was no other place for the fire station, it would be a different matter, but there is.
“It pulls at the very basics of what Maumelle was developed around — family-friendly, with open spaces and green spaces,” he said.
Architects Jackson Brown Palculict had drawn plans for the fire station on the open area that included berms with trees to block light pollution and noise, the mayor said.
Lewis said many residents are frustrated by what they believe is a lack of communication by the city about the proposal, and he doesn’t blame them.
“I call it unintentional ambiguity of the property we were talking about,” he said.
He said a letter sent to residents Nov. 22, 2013, just before Thanksgiving, was poor timing and not sent by certified mail.
“Why those addresses? Who made that decision?” Lewis asked.
Watson said the fire department came up with the addresses. Letters were sent to 26 homes to get residents’ input on the “conceptual design” of the fire station. He said five residents from three homes attended the meeting. He said the city council was not invited.
“Since [residents of] only three homes out of 26 showed up for the meeting or made contact with the fire department, it was assumed by those attending that most residents did not have any issues, or they chose not to attend for other reasons,” Watson said.
Watson said that legally, only people 200 feet from the proposed site had to be contacted.
“We went beyond that,” he said. “We thought these were going to be the people most interested. We weren’t trying to leave anybody out.”
Resident Alicia Gillen, 37, of Club Manor Drive said she didn’t receive a letter. The mother of three said she has lived “less than a mile” from the open space for four years.
“I was unaware of it whenever I voted for the bond in 2012,” she said. “I assumed it was going to be in the commercial property adjacent to Club Manor and Odom,” adjacent to First Christian Church.
Gillen said she found out about the proposed location on Lewis’ Facebook page. He posted a conceptual design of the fire station, he said, to help spread the word about the location.
“My biggest concern is the aesthetics of this community,” Gillen said. “We moved to this community because of its wonderful walking trails and open spaces.”
She said a fire station on the green space “would greatly impact the residents of this area and also take away from the charm of this community.”
Even though Lewis and Hogue said they don’t think the council will select the open site for the station, Gillen isn’t letting down her guard.
“It’s not completely off the table yet,” Gillen said. “It still goes before the council. We still have some work to do so that the council makes a great decision to keep [the station] off that property,” she said.
“I believe that the mayor is doing everything he can to rectify the situation and move forward with an alternate location,” Gillen said.
Gillen said a neighborhood Let’s Fly a Kite Picnic is planned on the open space today.
“This is the first available opportunity to remind people how much this is used during the spring and summer,” she said. Gillen said sports teams, including peewee football teams, practice on the lot.
Lewis said he had planned to support the conditional-use permit for the open-space site, “until we didn’t do our due diligence,” he said.
When he talked to former Fire Chief Glenn about building on the open space,”I explained to him that they were going to have to have ample public meetings and that it was going to be critical to be candid to pull it off,” Lewis said.
However, Lewis said, “Somewhere in there, I think the ball was dropped.”
Watson said he does believe the city did its due diligence.
“We followed all our own rules and regulations, and I felt like we had done everything possible,” he said.
Lewis said there are three pieces of property that he thinks could be used for the station instead of the open space:
• One is the property south of Maumelle Boulevard near First Christian Church that Watson negotiated to buy in 2008.
• “Possibly, we could look at property on National Bank of Arkansas land off Country Club Parkway, farthest to the south, and there are three or four smaller lots to sell next to what was NBA Bank,” Lewis said.
Watson said those sites “are too far to the south” to provide proper coverage.
• Thirdly, Lewis said, “We’d probably have to look a little farther down Country Club Parkway.” He said response time might be an issue there, however.
Chief Payne said it doesn’t matter to him if the station is built on the open space or a different piece of property. He said response time is important, not just for a lower insurance rating, but for the lives of the residents.
“My job is to provide emergency medical, as well as fire service, in the most efficient manner possible,” Payne said. “That area (open space) — I won’t say that location — serves the city, its best interest, for emergency medical, as well as fire. Time is critical. It’s all about location,” he said.
However, Payne said that if the station is built on the property across the street, near the church, the lights and sirens would “project more to the residential, I’m afraid.”
“We’re very diligent in trying to minimize the amount of distractions,” Payne said. “We don’t activate sirens until we’re in route. According to Arkansas law, if you’re activating your red light, you have to activate your siren.”
Watson said changing the site will cause a construction delay.
“It could delay us 90 to 120 days, is what I’m guessing,” he said.
“The whole goal is to try to get the construction started this year so we could have it in the dry by winter. Sometimes you get lucky; sometimes you can build in the winter in Arkansas,” Watson said.
Lewis said he doesn’t think the delay is a big deal. The other two projects approved as part of the 2012 bond project haven’t started, either, he said.
“I think we have ample time to get this right,” Lewis said.
Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or email@example.com.