The Little Rock Planning Commission voted 10-1 this afternoon to deny a conditional use permit that would have allowed developer Rick Ferguson to build a package wastewater plant on Nowlin Creek in West Pulaski County, two miles outside the city limits. The plant would serve the Mountain Valley subdivision Ferguson hopes to build on 36 acres on Highway 10 adjacent to the treatment plant. He wants to put 134 homes in the subdivision; that application will go before the commission in August.
Commissioner Craig Berry initially made a motion to move the CUP to the City Board without a recommendation by the commission, saying there were policy issues to address about the future of the Maumelle watershed that were outside the panel’s purview. The issue will go to the City Board no matter the outcome of a vote by the commission, he said. “The city needs to come to terms with the fact that this watershed is going to be developed,” Berry said.
Planning staff, however, told Berry that was not an option, so he changed the motion to approve the CUP, accepting all of the planning staff’s recommendations except that the application be denied. Only Commissioner Troy Leha, who earlier commented that he had himself designed and installed private treatment plants without “major problems” and told the West Little Rock opponents to the plan attending the meeting, “You people are a little bit selfish,” voted to approve the CUP.
Before making his motions, Berry asked the planning staff if the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality, which told Ferguson he would have to get a CUP before it would issue a permit, took into account entire watersheds when it looked at individual permits for sewage plants. Planning Department Director Dana Carney said he was unaware if ADEQ considered the cumulative effect. Berry also noted that the Pulaski County Quorum Court had voted recently in support of a moratorium on private treatment plants.
Carney, introducing the application, said the staff had “given a lot of thought” to the CUP and decided the plan was not compatible with the surrounding property and they would recommend against. He said the Mountain Valley subdivision that would be served was the “classic case” of urban sprawl, “leapfrogging” undeveloped lands nearer to the city that may one day be taken in through annexation and served by the city’s wastewater utility.
Phil Kaplan, appearing for the developer, took on the staff’s reasoning, noting the commission had approved a plant for the Alotian golf course further west and that there were 63 private plants operating in the city or its extraterritorial jurisdiction. He said there had been no problems from the Alotian plant, which also empties into Nowlin Creek, and that the Department of Health and ADEQ had approved Ferguson’s plant plans. (ADEQ, however, has not granted a permit to the plant.) He said West Pulaski County would be developed no matter what its residents today want, and reminded them that city master plans to keep the Highway 10 corridor green had been for naught.
Dr. Harold Hedges, speaking after Kaplan, held up photographs showing an algae bloom at the point where the Alotian plant’s effluent enters the creek to dispute Kaplan’s contention that the plant was problem free. Hedges was followed by environmental consultant Bruce Shackleford, who talked about plant problems in Northwest Arkansas and Lake Hamilton. “Moratorium doesn’t have to be a four-letter word,” he said.
Drew Kelso, leader of the Citizens of West Pulaski County group, cited worries about the precedent the plant would create: the installation of more and more plants, which would dump increasing amounts of effluent into the Little Maumelle as it flows through several recreational areas, including Pinnacle Mountain State Park. As a case in point, he said the plant for an envisioned development on Kanis Road (The Trails) would have a daily output of 63,000 gallons of effluent into Fletcher Creek upstream of the Little Maumelle, water would combine with the Mountain Valley plant’s 40,000 gallons emptying into Nowlin Creek. (Kaplan disputed the 40,000 gallon number, saying it would be more like 20,000 gallons, the same as the private Alotian golf course.)
Kelso noted major sewer plant failures, including the failed Marble Falls plant that threatened to pollute the Buffalo River and whose owners were sued by the ADEQ; a Chicot Road sewage treatment plant that has had continuing problems and has been cited by ADEQ for leakages, and a Washington County plant owned by an improvement district that went into receivership. (Kaplan said an improvement district, not a POA, would maintain the plant.) Kelso noted how slowly the system works when there is a complaint made to ADEQ and noted that a trust fund created to take the place of making operators accountable in the 2015 legislature contained the pitiable sum of $19,157 dollars in it.
In response, Kaplan described Kelso’s concerns as “apocalyptic” and said that he had not heard anyone address the specific plant that would be built under the CUP. “All they can say is others have failed,” he said.