PRESERVING TREE CANOPY: That’s aim of ordinance for Heights neighborhood, roughly including area shown in this Google map satellite shot.

In a meeting Wednesday evening, the Little Rock Board of Directors approved the Heights Neighborhood Association’s tree ordinance, which creates a design overlay district in the historic neighborhood. The ordinance is an effort to preserve the area’s “tree canopy,” and after it was passed unanimously by the Planning Commission in April, the new requirements were revised following conversations between supporters and anti-regulation opponents.

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Nine of the 10 city directors voted for the ordinance; Ward 5 Director Lance Hines was the sole vote against it. 

The ordinance requires homeowners who apply for a construction or demolition permit for their property to plant or preserve certain species of trees and sizes of trees. If homeowners tear down trees during the construction process, they’re required to plant one tree per 40 feet of street frontage on their property. For each existing tree that’s at least 12 inches in diameter that a homeowner preserves, then all the tree requirements have been fulfilled.

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The ordinance also applies to homeowners who wish to build additions onto existing structures. The ordinance requires all “plans for new construction, additions and modifications” to be submitted to the Planning and Development department for approval. 

At-large Director Dean Kumpuris told directors last week that he thought a compromise had been reached between the ordinance’s supporters and those who opposed it. Heights Neighborhood Association President Norman Hodges said only a few small changes were made to the ordinance since April, saying it’s “still in the same vein” as what was originally presented. 

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On Wednesday’s meeting, Natalie Capps, a member of the Heights Neighborhood Association, gave a brief presentation about the goal of the ordinance, which included several pictures of clear-cut lots in the Heights neighborhood. Capps also told directors that since the Planning Commision first voted on the ordinance in April, a developer bought several lots near Forest Park Elementary and has cleared two of them with at least four more slated to be cleared. 

Kevin Crass, an attorney with Friday, Eldridge and Clark who previously spoke against the ordinance, was not in attendance at Wednesday’s meeting.  He told the Times later that his side had compromised because the ordinance had “significant changes” from the original version. The main changes allow a home builder to get an occupancy permit before trees are planted and a requirement that a tree last three years.  He said the original ordinance would have required replacement of a new tree no matter when it died thus imposing a perpetual legal requirement on lots that are subject to the ordinance but not all lots.

After the board voted to approve the ordinance, its supporters applauded. Ward 1 Director Erma Hendrix addressed the large crowd by thanking them for coming to the meeting and telling them that she “would hope that you have concerns not just in your neighborhood, but I represent people south of 630, and we are in a dilemma out there.” Several people nodded. “I need your help,” she added, to more applause. 

The ordinance will go into effect in 30 days. Hodges said the group was told it couldn’t attach an emergency clause to the ordinance, but it “wished” it could because “within the past two weeks, there have been six to eight lots totally stripped in the Heights.” 

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Hodges added that he “wouldn’t be surprised” if more trees are cut down during construction in the neighborhood before the ordinance goes into effect. 

Hines said he voted against the ordinance because it “does nothing to stop clear-cutting” and it “violates personal property rights.”  

“They said [the Heights Neighborhood Association] sent out 2,100 letters [to neighborhood residents], but they admittedly only have 500 members in the organization,” Hines said. “So you’ve got 25 percent of an area saying they represent [the neighborhood], and I’m telling you, most of the neighbors don’t understand. And the people that do understand, that opposed it, are not… But they’ll be back again trying to change it. I just think it’s bad policy and it violates personal property rights.” 

Two ordinances seeking to change the zoning for two properties on Crystal Court from single-family districts to planned residential developments were deferred from the meeting’s agenda until Jan. 21 “at staff’s request.” The applicants have been renting out “accessory structures” on their properties as short-term rentals through the popular Airbnb platform — an action that Dana Carney, the city’s zoning and subdivision manager, told city directors last week is a “moving target” for Little Rock. 

Directors also approved an ordinance that will establish a Planned Industrial District at 8404 Baseline Road for Freshly Renewed, a transitional and sober living facility for people recovering from drug addiction. The facility will provide counseling, vocational training and other social services for men and women as well as short-term housing for men. 

A couple of neighborhood residents spoke against the ordinance, saying it could bring “undesirable people” to the neighborhood. 

City Attorney Tom Carpenter then reminded directors that the ordinance was a zoning ordinance, and said that for the city to consider the ordinance based on whether or not the people who might live in the facility were “desirable or undesirable” would be a violation of the fair housing act. 

Vice Mayor B.J. Wyrick, who represents Ward 7, where the facility will be established, said she would not support the ordinance because it is in a “challenged area” that she and other residents have been “trying to bring up.” 

Jason Bristow, assistant director of Freshly Renewed, told directors he has struggled with addiction and has been in recovery for three years. 

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“It’s really difficult to get somebody that goes from addiction, and they’re all the way in that lifestyle, to change everything that they’ve been doing to be a productive member of society,” Bristow said. “But I can tell you that it can be done, because I went through places like this, and it’s what saved my life.” 

Wyrick said she was concerned about the impact “this type of individual” could have on the neighborhood. 

“You’ve got a good story, but I am just concerned about the location and what it might do to the fragile neighborhood that I’ve been trying to lift up for the last number of years,” Wyrick said. 

Hines then said he had to “deeply object” to comments from opposition that described future clients of the facility as the “wrong kind of people.” 

“Having come from a family that’s had family members fight the battle of addiction, some of them win it — well, actually, not win it, they struggle to fight it every day,” Hines said. “I think that somebody seeking redemption and trying to break the cycle of addiction is not a bad thing for our community.” 

Directors Ken Richardson, Kathy Webb, Doris Wright and Capi Peck also spoke in support of the ordinance. Wright, who represents Ward 6, said the city needs more services like those that Freshly Renewed will provide. 

“My concern is if we don’t have supportive services, the issues that are impacting our young people with drug use are going to get worse,” Wright said. “Every time I talk to young people, they say they want jobs. But when they go to take the drug test, they can’t pass it. That’s a major problem. So what do you do then? To us, as a society: What do we do when these young people can’t pass drug tests? Well, they keep using drugs because there’s no supportive services. … We’ve got to have these services.” 

Peck said she felt “conflicted” not supporting Wyrick, but said “this is where it needs to be.” 

Addressing the Freshly Renewed director and assistant director, Peck said, “I commend for doing the work. I commend you for your three years. I’m all too familiar with addiction, and it kind of hurt my heart to hear addicts called ‘undesirables.’ We can do better than that.” 

At-large director Joan Adcock and Wyrick voted against the ordinance, and all other directors voted in support.