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story.lead_photo.caption FILE — C&H Hog Farms, seen from the air in May 2017. - Photo by Mitchell PE Masilun

Gov. Asa Hutchinson assured legislative leaders in a letter this week that his office is checking for any liens on the Newton County hog farm where the state plans to spend $6.2 million for a conservation easement that would close the farm in the Buffalo River watershed.

Concerns that an unknown lien on C&H Hog Farms could derail the state's efforts to buy out the farm's owners led lawmakers in June to request that such a check be conducted before state money is spent on the easement.

The purchase of a conservation easement on the farm was announced by Hutchinson on June 13, as a proposed settlement to a long-running controversy about the farm's operation along a tributary that feeds into the Buffalo National River, one of the state's most emblematic tourist draws.

Money for the easement is expected to come mostly out of the state's "rainy-day" fund, with additional funding provided by the private Nature Conservancy and grants.

Based on the governor's assurances, the Legislative Council's co-chairmen -- Sen. Cecile Bledsoe, R-Rogers, and Rep. Jeff Wardlaw, R-Hermitage -- signed off on the transfer of up to $6.2 million in rainy-day funds.

Hutchinson said none of the money will be spent until the state is given assurances that it has priority lien status on the property.

"We are currently awaiting receipt of a title opinion," the governor said in his letter. "If there is not clear title, the funds will not be placed into the Escrow Account and the agreement will not be executed."

J.R. Davis, a spokesman for the governor, said the opinion is being prepared by the First National Title Co., an Arkansas company.

In their own letter to the governor's state budget director sent later Tuesday, both Bledsoe and Wardlaw asked for a full accounting of the amount of money spent on the easement by both state and private sources.

According to Davis, the state is planning to spend $3.7 million from the total amount approved to be spent from the rainy-day fund. Another $1 million is expected to come from the Nature Conservancy, and $1.5 million will come from grants from the Arkansas Natural and Cultural Resources Council.

In a phone call Wednesday, Wardlaw said the governor's letter "100% addresses" concerns that were raised by lawmakers during a June 21 meeting.

"Our legal people at the [Bureau of Legislative Affairs] agree," Wardlaw said.

Those concerns were raised by Sen. Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana, who said at the committee meeting that any outside liens that had priority over the state's easement could result in the state "throwing away" money dedicated to the project.

Neither Hickey nor Bledsoe responded to requests for comment late Wednesday.

The hog farm, owned by Jason Henson, Richard Campbell and Philip Campbell, opened in 2013 and has since drawn concerns from environmental groups over the possibility of hog manure leaking into the Buffalo River. While the river is on a state list of water bodies impaired by E. coli, no link has been found between the bacteria and C&H Farms.

Information for this article was contributed by Michael R. Wickline of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Metro on 07/11/2019

Print Headline: Lien check on track, Arkansas governor tells panel; search a condition of hog-farm buyout

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