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The boundary of land covered under Lake Maumelle watershed protections shifted toward Little Rock last week, a change that would apply if, and only if, the city decides to not enforce its extraterritorial jurisdiction.

Water quality in Lake Maumelle, the primary drinking-water source for 400,000 central Arkansans, is preserved by pages of regulations, including a subdivision and development code, a watershed zoning code, and a comprehensive land use plan, all previously adopted by the Pulaski County Quorum Court.

About 50 percent of the watershed is in Pulaski County. A slim segment of the watershed, under 2 square miles, crosses into Little Rock's extraterritorial jurisdiction on the west side of the city, immediately south of the southeast shore of Lake Maumelle.

Under Arkansas law, extraterritorial jurisdictions are places where a city can exert zoning authority to plan for future growth, up to no more than three miles outside city limits.

An ordinance unanimously approved by the Pulaski County Quorum Court on Tuesday extends Lake Maumelle watershed protections into the chunk of the watershed that overlaps Little Rock's extraterritorial jurisdiction.

But those protections only apply if Little Rock decides to withdraw that boundary or not enforce that boundary, county attorney Adam Fogleman said. Existing case law grants Arkansas cities exclusive zoning authority in the extraterritorial jurisdictions they adopt, he said.

"This is really 'belt and suspenders' for a very sensitive area," County Judge Barry Hyde said of the ordinance, which did not go through any subcommittee review and prompted no questions from Quorum Court members.

"Belt and suspenders" is a term for dual protection.

"It's just insurance against your pants falling down," Fogleman said.

Desire for another layer of protection arose because Little Rock is considering changes in its extraterritorial jurisdiction, Fogleman said. Two studies are underway, collectively examining the costs and effects of extending city services, like police, fire, trash, road and sewer services, to extraterritorial areas.

"Because they're studying what to do in the [extraterritorial jurisdiction], it presents the potential for risk in that area," Fogleman said.

"This is probably something that should have been done years ago," said Justice of the Peace Tyler Denton, who sponsored the ordinance. Pulaski County is being proactive, rather than reactive, he said.

"In the past, we've always been reactive to this," Denton said. "I think that's harbored a lot of the resistance and a lot of the ill will" toward watershed protections, he said.

How, or whether, to safeguard the Lake Maumelle watershed was the subject of years of debate, public forums, and some agitation between conservationists and land rights supporters. Several large development projects proposed in the watershed were stopped, or mitigated, in an effort to preserve water quality.

One project, a proposed wedding venue, spurred a lawsuit in which the property owners claimed the watershed zoning code was unconstitutionally vague after their plans were denied. That case was eventually dismissed because the plaintiffs could not afford to continue, they said.

"There's a fine line between property rights and conservation," Denton said, adding that he's a firm believer in both.

"If anybody in the community feels we've tightened the belt too tightly, we can always go back and loosen the belt," he said.

Walter Malone, a Little Rock planning manager, said it's highly unlikely that the the city will alter its extraterritorial jurisdiction anytime soon. With only a few minor changes, the western boundary has largely stayed the same for the past couple of decades, he said.

"I can't swear to you that it would never ever happen," Malone added. "Ever is a long time."

But the studies are "not being done with an eye toward changing the planning boundary," he said.

"Could that have other ramifications later? Possibly," Malone said of the studies' outcomes. "But that's a whole different discussion."

Metro on 04/28/2018

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