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East Little Rock residents who live above contaminated groundwater don't want the city Board of Directors to vote on an ordinance next week that would restrict certain uses of their property, and the board chose not to discuss the matter Tuesday.

The issue was on the board's 4 p.m. agenda-setting meeting to consider ahead of a possible vote next week, but when it came time to discuss the matter, City Director at-large Joan Adcock quickly said, "No questions."

The mayor responded, "Nobody? OK, very good," and moved on to the next part of the meeting.

Several residents and their attorney were present to answer any questions from the board and explain their opposition.

"Obviously we would have hoped for some questions today. That's why we were here. We would have hoped the board would have taken our input," said Ross Noland, an attorney from McMath Woods law firm.

When questioned after the meeting, Adcock said she hasn't received any calls or emails about the matter.

"I don't see that there's a problem with this since I haven't heard from anyone," she said.

Timex Corp. is responsible for contaminating a 9-acre piece of city-owned land at 2215 Crisp Drive, which it leased from the airport from 1947 to 2000 to make watches, clocks and cameras.

That contamination was carried by water north, where it settled in deep groundwater plumes under a 2½-block area of residential and commercial properties on the opposite side of East 12th Street.

The last time the city board discussed the issue was in January. City Attorney Tom Carpenter said at the time that the city would not consider an ordinance restricting residents' use of their property.

The board already voted to restrict certain land uses on the contaminated city-owned property.

But Adcock requested at last week's meeting that the matter be brought up again for Tuesday's agenda session.

A proposed ordinance would require any existing groundwater wells in the area to be closed and would prohibit any more wells from being constructed. There is an exception for wells drilled for monitoring and remediation of the contamination.

The privately owned area affected by the groundwater contamination is between 11th and 12th streets to the north and south, and J.W. Hawkins and Apperson streets to the west and east.

Timex and the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality have said there are no health concerns for people living in that area unless they for some reason access the groundwater.

As a condition of the ordinance, Timex would have to enter into an indemnity agreement stating that the company would pay for all legal fees and settlements if the city were to be sued for passing the ordinance.

Most residents in the affected area are being jointly represented by McMath Woods and John W. Walker law firms. The area includes 18 houses, 17 vacant lots and two businesses that take up five lots.

Timex made an offer -- in March 2014 when it notified residents and property owners of the contamination -- to purchase all 40 lots or a deed restricting the access to groundwater on the properties. That offer still stands.

So far, the company has bought seven lots and gained deed restrictions on an additional five properties. It is under contract to purchase one more lot.

Rodney Peterson, who is serving as the spokesman for the residents, said putting restrictions on the land would lower the value of the properties. He said Timex "low-balled" property owners on the purchase offers for their homes.

Peterson lives part time in Memphis and part time at 1124 Calhoun St., the house closest to the former Timex site. His sister and her two sons live at the home full time.

In addition to restricting groundwater access, the proposed ordinance would restrict the land to its current zoning regulations, even if those rules are changed at a future date.

"We are trying to build back up our community. We don't want it to be dilapidated. We don't want the appraised value of our homes lowered. We don't want people to feel unsafe, where they can't live there forever," Peterson said. "We feel like Timex is trying to rob the residents of their history there and their future there. That's how we feel."

Noland, the residents' attorney, has argued that restricting well drilling on residents' property would constitute a legal "taking."

"We don't believe the city of Little Rock has any interest in encumbering the property rights of residents out there. If Timex wants to restrict what people can do with their property, they need to negotiate that privately," he said.

Carpenter said he doesn't think there would be a taking since groundwater is not accessed for drinking water.

"But, the cost of the litigation could be expensive and that has to be an element of the indemnity. ... I would not recommend the ordinance before because there was a known allegation of a taking in place, which means there was a probability that litigation costs would be incurred, and the city should not have to pay those costs for a problem it did not create," Carpenter said.

There are no "imminent plans" for litigation at this point, Noland said.

"Right now our main focus is on defeating this ordinance. [If it is passed], we will have to consider our options quickly thereafter. But we oppose it even being put on the agenda for next week," Noland said.

Jordan Johnson, a local spokesman hired to represent Timex, said passage of the ordinance doesn't prevent residents from taking legal action. It only ensures their safety, he said.

The board will meet Monday at 6 p.m. in the second-floor boardroom in City Hall at 500 West Markham. The ordinance is on the agenda for a vote.

Metro on 09/30/2015

Print Headline: Limit on land use a blip at meeting

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