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Everything old is new again on the Saline River near Benton.

In 2006, landowners tried to persuade the county to close a section of Peeler Bend Road between several parcels of private property and the river's edge. Doing so would have privatized a public road and closed access to that part of the most scenic and most popular float stream in central Arkansas.

A different group of 14 landowners is at it again at a different place. They have petitioned the county to "vacate" the portions of Tom Kelly Road and Mountain View Road that end on both sides of the Saline River at the spot popularly known as the Paul Wright/Nickel Bill Access.

Interestingly, the closest mailing address of any petitioner to the river crossing by road is 3.3 miles. The farthest is 31 miles.

As before, they cite lawless activity and littering to justify the county closing portions of the two roads. Doing so would essentially convey the vacated portions of the road into private ownership and allow the landowners to close a traditional public access point on the river.

Michael Sacomani, owner of Saline River Canoe in Benton, said the situation is identical to the Peeler Bend episode, but the implications are far greater for paddlers and anglers. Closing the Nickel Bill Access, Sacomani said, would eliminate public access to the entire Saline River above Peeler Bend.

"The only people that would benefit from this are the people listed on the petition [to close the roads]," Sacomani said. "Everybody else loses. If they put that gate up, the public will lose that option to use that 9-mile section of the Saline River. That is absolutely the best section of floating on the Saline River that I'm able to offer my customers."

Sacomani said he hosts many paddlers from central Arkansas, but he hosts many out-of-state visitors, too, especially from Louisiana. If landowners succeed in closing the Paul Wright Access, Sacomani said it will be very challenging to maintain the only recreational paddling service in central Arkansas.

"That's just the most popular float that we have," Sacomani said. "There's no way to jockey it around to offer something comparable of that length."

Sacomani said his business makes about $55,000 per year, depending on how deep into summer the Saline River is floatable. He said he serves thousands of people, at a rate of 20-30 canoe rentals per day.

"That starts a spiderweb of economic impact," Sacomani said. "They stay at motels. They buy gas. They stop at the [Riverside] Grocery for sandwiches and snacks and other things."

Around the time of the Peeler Bend episode, an urban planning consultant identified the Saline River as an underutilized resource to facilitate economic growth in Benton.

"A lot of towns in Arkansas embrace their rivers," Sacomani said. "Why would a city abandon its most scenic section of the river that flows through there?"

To justify the county vacating the road, the petitioners say the road is unusable for most of the year.

Not so, Sacomani said.

"All my data came from the U.S. Geologic Service website, and they track that river 24/7," Sacomani said. "For 1,826 days from 2014-18, the river was above USGS flood stage of 18 feet for 27 days, or 1.5 percent of the time. The river was above 10 feet for 90 days, or 4.9 percent of the time.

"As far as being useless, I use it [the road] commercially, and I have for the last 11 years. The river is low enough to float with relative safety more than 95 percent of the time."

Complaints about unlawful activity are legitimate, but Sacomani said that's not a valid reason to close a public road.

"The very true side of this is that there are unsavory people," Sacomani said. "People do 'people' things. My argument is real simple. If we went around closing every road that somebody acted a fool on, we couldn't get anywhere.

"The complaint that there's people down here doing things doesn't really register with me a whole lot. That's a police matter, not a good reason to close a road to impact thousands of people because somebody was reported drinking or whatever."

A public meeting to consider the petition will be held Thursday at 10 a.m. at the Saline County Courthouse in Benton. For more information, visit the Saline River Canoe page on Facebook.

Sports on 04/14/2019

Print Headline: Landowners petition to close Saline River access

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