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Troubled waters: with $3.5 million in federal funds, the G&FC is building lakes for private developers.

Troubled Waters

With $3.5 Million In Federal Funds, The G&FC Is Building Lakes For Private Developers

In what some claim is a misuse of federal funds, the state Game and Fish Commission has begun using sportsmen's taxes to build public fishing lakes costing millions of dollars at speculative residential development sites.

To wit:

Currently, Lake Wright, a 250-acre impoundment just east of Greenwood in Sebastian County, is nearing completion at a cost of more than $1.2 million in federal excise taxes on fishing and boating equipment;

At the same time, the commission is studying the feasibility of constructing a "Lake Needmore" on Cedar Creek in Scott County on part of 2,200 acres speculators Lonnie Campbell and Bill Barker bought recently from Weyerhaeuser Co;

The commission is also exploring the possibility of a lake on Sullivan Creek in Independence County on land to be donated in part by retired dentist, Dr. R. E. Bell, father of state Sen. Steve Bell of Batesville. Only this site among the three is not targeted for development soon.

The cooperative venture between developers and the state G&FC starts when land donated by would-be developers and others is used as a state match to get 75 percent reimbursement on a project from federal Dingell-Johnson Act funds.

G&FC Assistant Director Scott Henderson defends the agency, saying if Arkansas doesn't use its $3.5-million-a-year Dingell-Johnson money within three years after receipt, it goes into a pool for other states to tap. The commission has no money of its own to use as a match and must rely on donations.

Others, however, including the 5,500-member Arkansas Wildlife Federation, question the practice because the commission has no control over what development takes place around the lakes, and is in effect subsidizing private developers' profits when they sell lakeside residential lots.

Betsey Wright's Namesake

The federation has spent the last decade fighting proposed dams on the state's few remaining free-flowing streams like Lee Creek near Fort Smith, the North Fork/Illinois Bayou near Russellville, and the North Fork/Saline River near Benton with an eye toward maintaining diversity in the state's outdoor recreation opportunities.

AWF Executive Director Terry Horton personally questions the need for more lakes in a state that already has 350,000 acres of publicly owned lakes and reservoirs.

The history of nearly-completed Lake Wright illustrates the intricacies of the deal with its apparent conflicts of interest.

In September 1989, Sam Sicard, president of First National Bank at Fort Smith, and David Reeder, a Fort Smith new truck dealer, gave the commission 258 acres of their undivided half interests in 1,100 acres of pastureland north of Highway 10 a mile and a half from downtown Greenwood. A golf course lies on the other side of the highway, and the area appears prime for development.

A Fort Smith firm appraised the 258-acre donation as having a fair market value of $323,750 or $1,250 an acre because the "highest and best use" was judged to be "home sites and/or speculative land toward residential development as local economy matures."

Sicard said he and Reeder are six months away from deciding what kind of residential construction to pursue and whether a third party will be brought in to do the actual development.

Henderson said the Lake Wright project moved quickly because the site had been pinpointed, and some preliminary work had been done on plans the landowners presented to the commission.

In a controversial move by Commissioner Perry Mikles of Booneville, the impoundment was named for Betsey Wright, Gov. Bill Clinton's former chief of staff and now state Democratic Party chairman. Mikles said several G&FC members, himself included, owed their appointments to Wright.

Needing More Lakes?

Another similar project, proposed Lake Needmore, has hit a snag, but has yet to be cancelled by the G&FC.

In a deal closed last spring, oilman Lonnie Campbell and Bill Barker lined up an option to buy 2,200 acres from Weyerhaeuser in adjacent Scott County south of Waldron near the U.S. 71 community of Needmore.

Barker, a Scott County native with a local reputation as a "wheeler and dealer," says he and Campbell plan to subdivide the land into lots of three acres or more and develop it "when the G&FC develops the lake."

G&FC Fisheries Biologist Bob Limbird of Knoxville (Pope County) was sent to assess the location last winter. His report of Feb. 6, which has never been made public, recommends no further action be taken.

The watershed or drainage area is so large that water in any lake the commission might build would turn over quickly and frequently, leaving nothing for fish to eat. In other words, the lake would be sterile.

Limbird also points out there are 83,350 acres of Corps of Engineers lakes and 1,284 acres of G&FC lakes within an hour's drive of the site.

A later memo in G&FC files reveals that "this project is hotter than we thought," and Assistant Director Henderson orders that an appraisal be done. The 635 acres needed for a 515-acre lake were appraised at $700 an acre -- $328,833 short of providing the match for the $2.32 million needed to pay for construction.

Lake Needmore has "low priority" as a result, Henderson says, but the proposal has not been nixed formally by the commission.

Lake State Sen. Bell?

For freshman state Sen. Steve Bell, the G&FC funds could fulfill a life-long dream.

Bell's father and Robert Morris own more than 500 acres of land near Sandtown in northern Independence County that they bought in the late 1960s and early 1970s. They run cattle and operate "Fox Pens" for those whose sport is listening to their dogs run foxes. Bell asked his father and Morris if they would donate land for a lake, and they said yes.

There are no lakes within 50 miles of the site, but the big question was whether the land in this rocky, rugged area had enough clay to build a dam so that expensive fill dirt wouldn't have to be hauled in. Preliminary G&FC tests show it does, and Bell/Morris Lake seems to be on "go."

The site is so remote and isolated that no development is planned, the senator says, though he does not deny that a lake may attract a few buyers of lots, and his family will claim the tax credits afforded by the gift.

Bell was reminded that what is now Cherokee Village in adjacent Sharp County was equally remote and isolated in 1955, but this didn't stop Cooper Communities from putting up its own money to build seven lakes in the first of Arkansas' major planned retirement communities. Cooper Communities subsequently created six lakes in Hot Springs Village and eight in its Bella Vista retirement conclaves.

Henderson also was reminded of Cherokee Village, but he says these are private facilities, whereas the public has access to all G&FC lakes. Cooper Communities spokesman Mike Dial says use of the lakes is limited to Cherokee Village, Hot Springs Village and Bella Vista property owners, and anyone who bothers to get a "guest card."

Homes in the communities are on one-third-acre lots and must sit back 20 to 25 feet from the lakes; however, most of them are on community sewage systems rather than septic tanks. Property owners are barred from cutting trees to improve their views of the lakes, Dial says.

No Public Guidelines

The G&FC has never adopted a formal written policy with public input on its new practice, though Henderson says he has "no problem" with having a public hearing on it or on any individually proposed lake site.

There are some informal guidelines -- a donated site must be "suitable" (i.e., not leak or have a watershed that's too large); the value of the donation must equal at least 25 percent of a project's total cost, and it should have "no adverse effect on existing habitat."

There is a 50-foot buffer around Lake Wright, but critics say this won't be enough to protect the small impoundment from pollution if development around the lake is dense and septic tanks are used.

In the early 1970s, the state Pollution Control and Ecology Commission slapped a ban on new construction with septic tanks in the vicinity of Lake Hamilton near Hot Springs because of pollution. And septic tanks are suspected of contributing to Beaver Lake's pollution woes in northwest Arkansas.

A former Scott County resident now living in Little Rock, who asked not to be identified, says he fears the G&FC is creating "more Lake Hinkles." This G&FC lake, located in Scott County, is notorious for having residents and campers who use "open latrines" near its shores.

Still others fear the commission is setting the stage for "more Lake Conways" where those who have built homes on the impoundment's banks have become possessive about the lake, leading to frequent clashes with the public.

Henderson says, however, that he knows of no lake ever built that did not attract settlers, and he doubts the G&FC will ever be given covenants restricting development around donated sites.

In the meantime, would-be developers should be aware of a little-known 1973 Pollution Control and Ecology Commission regulation that surfaced last week. It purports to require "disposal permits" for all "real estate developments" of 50 lots or more within 2,640 feet of a lake or stream in Arkansas. It was designed to close the barn door at Beaver Lake, although the cow already had escaped.

The regulation is headed for its first court test because PC&E used it to file suit in Fulton County Chancery Court last week in hopes of stopping "tent cities" of 10-by-30-foot recreational lots from mushrooming on the banks of the pristine Spring and Eleven Point Rivers in northeast Arkansas.

PHOTO : IS IT WRONG?: Lake Wright, a 250-acre impoundment in Sebastian County, is one of three G&FC projects being criticized for misuse of federal funds.
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Title Annotation:Game and Fish Commission of Arkansas
Author:Griffee, Carol
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Oct 15, 1990
Words:1680
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