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North Little Rock planner's new term divides panel

City’s Clifton draws opposition after fuel-stop proposal by Stephen Simpson | January 4, 2021 at 6:48 a.m.
North Little Rock City Hall is shown in this 2020 file photo.

Norman Clifton has served on North Little Rock's Planning Commission for more than 30 years, but his reappointment last week by the City Council was clouded by a convenience store controversy that led residents from across the city to weigh in on what is normally a routine topic on the agenda.

Clifton was reappointed to the commission Monday by a 6-2 vote, with alderwomen Debi Ross and Beth White voting against his reappointment.

"I appreciate that Mr Clifton has served our city for 32 years, but also as representative of Ward 1 I have received an overwhelming number of emails and phone calls where people are saying they are ready for change," Ross said. "As a representative of Ward 1 and the voice of Ward 1, I will be voting against this appointment."

White expressed a similar sentiment.

"I haven't had this much contact over an issue like this before," she said. "I will vote no, as well."

Earlier this year, the Planning Commission voted unanimously to deny a request by Clifton to rezone property located at the northwest corner of North Hills Boulevard and Waterside Drive from residential to commercial to allow for a convenience store with fuel pumps.

The request caught the attention of many residents, who appeared at the meeting and expressed concerns that ranged from environmental issues to rises in noise and crime, a decrease in property values and traffic problems.

A community action group known as Protect North Little Rock organized the protest because of what it called an environmentally dangerous development at the base of a dam. Tiffanie Nelson, organizer of the protest, said the development would destroy the local environment and disproportionately affect minority communities downstream from the site.

Nelson said the proposed convenience store would put 48,000 to 60,000 gallons of gasoline in underground tanks directly beneath a series of dams and a creek that flows into environmental wetlands.

Clifton said at a Planning Commission meeting in September that concerns mentioned by protesters would be addressed by the proper regulatory agencies, and implored the commission to approve the rezoning request in the name of progress. He said the land use plan had designated the area as commercial property previously.

Multiple City Council members also mentioned they had received a multitude of calls and emails for and against Clifton's reappointment to the Planning Commission.

The agenda listed 70 emails that were sent to the city as well regarding the appointment, with 52 in support of Clifton and 15 against his reappointment. Multiple people also weighed in during the meeting by telephone.

The emails and phone calls were filled with passion.

"Mr Clifton is a fair and deserving man who has helped countless people of the North Little Rock Community," Brian Madar, chief operating officer for Tree of Life Seeds, said in an email. "His support of the very people who are working for the greater good in this community has never been more strong."

Resident Seth Flynt said Clifton was influential in bringing industries such as Amazon and Walmart to the city.

"Opposition has slandered him as being a greedy land tycoon only interested in lining his own pockets; yet Norman has NEVER used his position for anything other than the good and growth of this city that he lives, and probably gives more to local charities than any other person in city government (including his detractors)," Flynt said in an email.

Opposition to Clifton's reappointment continued to hammer at his efforts to gain approval for the convenience store at North Hills Boulevard and Waterside Drive.

"I will soon not forget his response to the opposition to the gas station at Lake #1 -- he felt that this is an 'entrepreneurial' country and he should be able to put any business he wanted there," resident Sandra Withers said in an email. "He is the opposite of the type of person needed to make these types of decisions for the citizens of North Little Rock."

Nelson also suggested an ethics investigation should be opened because of Clifton's handling of the convenience store proposal.

"I want to call for an immediate ethics investigation into Norman Clifton and how he used his city email and office to directly benefit his properties and the properties of others who would benefit him," Nelson said.

Clifton told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on Wednesday that he doesn't regret trying to get a convenience store built on his property, describing some social media comments about his efforts as "false accusations" and "a smear tactic to try to downgrade my reputation."

"It's my right as a property owner," Clifton said. "I followed the proper channels. When I tried to get it rezoned is when they started their social media campaign with all kinds of false information.

"I have served, so I know how those things worked. I knew that the commissioners were voting emotionally, not for the attributes of the property. I understood their vote and their no vote, and that's peoples' right to oppose it."

Clifton added that he didn't see a reason why he wouldn't be reappointed to the Planning Commission.

"I just let the council members reflect on my past duties that I have done," he said. "I have never had any kind of controversy come up where I was accused of any kind of wrongdoing.

"I believe the two ward council members voted for their constituents. The rest voted for me."

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