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PINE BLUFF -- Pine Bluff residents should begin seeing blighted properties come down in the urban renewal areas of the city after the City Council approved an agreement between the city and the Pine Bluff Urban Renewal Agency on Monday.

The agreement, which was opposed by council members Ivan Whitfield, Steven Mays and Bruce Lockett, passed by a vote of 5-3 after about 10 minutes of debate.

"When thinking about urban renewal we think about a build-up, but somehow in Pine Bluff, we always think about a tear down," Whitfield said. "I did a little research on urban renewal in Jonesboro, which is one of the fastest-growing cities in Arkansas, and their urban renewal works with their community development housing department. I'm just struck by tonight, we're not passing, or offering to pass, something that will tear down and build up."

Whitfield complained that he has seen no proposal for the Urban Renewal Agency to address blight in other areas of the city besides the urban renewal areas.

"There's nothing on the table now to say we're going to build up any neighborhoods and housing, affordable homes for our citizens," Whitfield said. "So I don't like the structure of this."

Mayor Shirley Washington pointed out that the situations in Jonesboro and Pine Bluff are not a straightforward comparison. She said Jonesboro has not had problems with blight to the same degree as Pine Bluff and has been able to approach urban renewal with more initial focus on rebuilding.

"Ours is covered with blight," Washington said. "We're talking about infill and we're trying to clear up these areas, and once we've gotten these areas cleared, we can have developers come in. Jonesboro has cleared land so they can have the developers come in and start the redevelopment. That's what we're moving toward."

Earlier, during the Ordinances and Resolutions Committee meeting, held just prior to the council meeting, other council members addressed Whitfield's concerns about the redevelopment focus being on the downtown area after he questioned why more is not being done in other parts of the city.

"I'm saying, we sit at this table and say we want to remove blight, then why just in one area?" Whitfield said. "Let's remove blight from the whole city."

"You have to have a focus," Council Member Glen Brown Jr. said. "You have to start somewhere. You can't just say we're going to remove blight everywhere because you have too broad a spectrum."

"The area we have assigned now as the urban renewal area is where we start," Washington said. "Once we finish the blight removal we move into a plan of infill. There is a step-by-step process we're moving through."

City officials have been grappling with the issue of blight removal in the urban renewal areas of the city for more than six months following an opinion issued in May by City Attorney Althea Scott that said the Urban Renewal Agency would first need to acquire properties before the blight can be removed. Prior to Scott's opinion, the agency had acted as an agent of the city by tearing down blighted properties and billing the property owners for the demolition, the same process used by the city's Code Enforcement Department in other areas of the city.

Scott's opinion noted that state law grants cities the authority to raze and remove structures, place liens against real property and collect those liens from the county tax collector. The opinion also said the Code Enforcement Department is legally allowed to perform those functions on behalf of the city.

The city attorney's opinion said the Urban Renewal Agency, which is an autonomous body created by the city, with its own independent governing board, could not lawfully act in the same capacity, but would have to legally acquire property through "purchase, contract, eminent domain, donation by school district, donation by City of city property, etc."

Upon receiving the opinion, Maurice Taggart, director of the Urban Renewal Agency, ordered the suspension of blight removal activities until the matter could be resolved.

But in November, Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, in an opinion requested by state Sen. Trent Garner, R-El Dorado, on behalf of the agency, said the agency most likely could do demolitions legally through a cooperative agreement with the city.

Last month, the City Council voted 6-2 to allow Washington to negotiate a cooperative agreement with the Urban Renewal Agency, and to bring the agreement back to the council for ratification.

Taggart said blight removal operations could resume as soon as the beginning of February.

State Desk on 01/12/2020

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