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story.lead_photo.caption The Washington County Courthouse, Tuesday, February 14, 2017 in downtown Fayetteville. - Photo by David Gottschalk

FAYETTEVILLE -- A plan to preserve green space in the region suffered a second blow when a Washington County committee refused to endorse a tax increase to pay for it.

One Washington County justice of the peace on the committee said she'll put the issue on the full Quorum Court's agenda so it can be discussed further.

On the web

To view the open space plan on the Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Commission website, use the following link:

The Northwest Arkansas Open Space Plan was presented Tuesday to the County Services Committee by Elizabeth Bowen, with the Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Commission, who developed the plan. It didn't receive a warm reception. Justices said they are wary of a proposal to raise taxes to pay for the program.

Benton County Quorum Court members, also citing tax concerns, rejected the plan in June.

Bowen said the plan calls for a 20-year, $65 million bond issue, which would be paid for with a one-eighth-cent sales tax. The bond proceeds would be matched and leveraged with other money to buy land from those who want to see their property protected from development. Land would only be purchased from willing sellers.

Supporters, including the Trust for Public Lands and the Northwest Arkansas Land Trust, wanted to see Washington and Benton counties put the tax issue on the Nov. 6 general election ballot.

"This bothers me a lot because we don't have a lot of money right now," said Tom Lundstrom, justice of the peace from District 1 in the rural northwest corner of Washington County. "I'm concerned about another tax of any kind."

Sue Madison, who represents District 12 in southeast Fayetteville, said the county has been struggling financially to pay for basic services in recent years.

"This is going to be very hard for me," Madison said.

Lisa Ecke, of District 6 in southeast Springdale, said the issue needs more discussion and justices need more information about how the program would work and exactly what the county's role would be.

"We need to discuss more whether we want to take on that responsibility or not," Ecke said.

Justices said they were concerned about who would manage the money, who would decide what land to buy, who would hold the deeds, who would maintain the land and whether money from Washington County would be used to buy land elsewhere.

Bowen said the county would issue the bonds and hold the money while an open space committee or the county could make recommendations of what to buy.

Joe Kieklak, of District 11 in southern Fayetteville, offered a motion to move the issue to the full Quorum Court, but the motion received no second.

Justice of the Peace Ann Harbison, of District 14 that covers the whole rural southern central section of the county, said she will sponsor the issue to get it on the full Quorum Court's agenda for further discussion.

Backers of the open space plan say it has broad public appeal. A recent poll by John Wilson Research of 400 likely voters indicated 59 percent would support the bond referendum. The survey was done in May of a random sample of registered voters throughout Washington County. When told the average annual household cost would be an additional $18 in taxes, the support increased to 64 percent.

Benton County officials said in June they don't want anyone to "muddy the waters" by asking voters to raise taxes for land conservation before the county's sales tax vote for a proposed $30 million courts building.

Brent Meyers, Benton County justice of the peace, said he was against asking voters about possible tax increases for anything other than the courts building. Benton County is aiming for a special election in March 2019.

The Regional Planning Commission and local governments in 2016 crafted the latest version of an Open Space Plan, which includes a detailed map of the parks, woods, streams and pastures that hold the most value to the region's residents and wildlife.

The purposes include protecting water quality of rivers, lakes and streams, particularly Beaver Lake, which provides the bulk of all drinking water for the region; protecting fish and wildlife habitat, natural areas, historic sites and working farms; and providing parks and recreational areas, including trails.

NW News on 07/12/2018

Print Headline: Washington County justices cool to open space proposal

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