FRAN ALEXANDER: The heart of a hill

Commercial creep leaves neighbors unsettled

Posted: September 4, 2018 at 1 a.m.

As children, at least in my generation, we learned that if you made a promise, you kept it, or a degree of peer scorn was in store. And, if you gave something away and then took it back, you were called an "Indian giver." Considering that the white man was always breaking the treaties he made with the Indians, the phrase parallels a bait-and-switch more than anything to do with gifts or trades.

We respect, or once did, that "his word is his bond," and a handshake sealed deals. In today's world, as we navigate and finalize negotiations, we write things down in contracts. But in the public realm, citizens look to ordinances, wrangled through political and legal processes, to try and keep us existing next to each other civilly. So, it usually comes as a shock to people who put their trust in a system of agreements to learn those understandings can be pulled out from under them. Such has become the essence of the current consternation over the future of the former Pratt-Markham-Archer property atop Markham Hill, now home of Pratt Place Inn.

The 144-acre property is crisscrossed with trails that were shared by the owners for decades and used by hikers, horseback riders, University of Arkansas track teams, joggers and nature lovers. Joy Markham's summer camp with rustic cabins, horseback riding, swimming, etc., was the stuff of legend. Her sister, Evangeline Archer, who also lived on the hill, was a noted conservationist bent on saving the Buffalo River in the early days when it was under threat to be dammed.

Specialized Real Estate recently bought this property, part of which was zoned in 2005 through city planning processes as a Planned Zone Development, or PZD. Mr. Archer, who owned and ran the inn, had assured the neighborhood before he built out his commercial endeavor, a small boutique inn with a party barn for hosting very limited events per month, that the surrounding forest would be a buffer to his project. The neighborhood reluctantly relented. After all, his family had owned the land since 1900, so adjoining property owners felt the Archers wanted to keep its character intact and make it economically viable.

So the PZD deal was done, and the neighbors tolerated a relatively small commercial venue with its accompanying degree of traffic, noise and people in the heart of a hilltop where many families had raised generations of children. The old adage that no good deed goes unpunished began to be felt in 2012 when the nibbling began. The Archers asked for, and the City Council granted, some of the buffer land to become residential lots. The problem with nibbling is no one knows what will be nibbled next, since economic pressures might push the possibility of more sell-offs. Allowing commercial entry into their midst began to feel like a mistake, and trust and security got shaky. Since I once owned a lot next to this zone, I too experienced the rumblings.

Eventually the Archer land was sold to developers, who knew exactly how it was zoned. What residents learn the hard way is that zoning agreements are hardly worth the paper. No matter what they have invested, based on a zone they are in or near, all their personal pleasures, peace, plans and improvements are put into competition next to developers' big promises of economic glory for the city's tax coffers. They often gamble that their proposals will be enough to tempt commissions and councils to favor their single goal over the assets and wishes of the many with established homes. But, all that glitters isn't gold. It is often just flash and everyone loses in the end, when commercial ventures suck the surrounding areas into their vortex. Plus, as things are now, a property can be sold again or other rezonings asked for before the ink dries on current proposals, and then all bets are off.

Most of the neighbors want the current zone to hold so that much of this magnificent land will not be torn apart and filled with a larger hotel, event buildings, cabins, houses, subdivisions, offices, commercial space, roads, etc. A group called Friends of Markham Hill has a petition at https://www.change.org/o/friends_of_markham_hill and is on Facebook with updates and information.

Their dream, of course, is that the current zoning holds, and that some wise savior will come forth to buy and protect this hilltop in a land trust or park. That kind of plan would be what is truly best for the city.

Commentary on 09/04/2018