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When someone says "that's water under the bridge," they usually mean the subject matter is in the past and no longer a source for anyone's concern.

Water over a dam? That's an entirely different matter.

What’s the point?

The city of Bentonville’s lawsuit over the future of Lake Bella Vista and its dam is the only viable way to clear a path forward.

The dam that creates Lake Bella Vista is in shambles, in need of either replacement or, as the Friends of Little Sugar Creek and others suggest, complete removal. Replacing the dam would be a multimillion-dollar undertaking, although some of those costs would likely be offset through state or federal dollars.

The better option, some suggest, is to essentially free the creek that's been dammed up since around 1915, when the family that owned the property hoped to develop a resort to draw visitors from the surrounding area. Keep in mind, this was a good 50 years before the development of nearby Beaver Lake and certainly before car travel unleashed our wanderlust.

Oddly enough for a lake so named, in 2019 it, the dam and about 132 acres of parkland around them are owned by the city of Bentonville. Its past ownership, however, may matter a great deal when it comes to the lake's future.

About three weeks ago, the attorney for Bentonville filed a lawsuit in Benton County Circuit Court. In simplest terms, the lawsuit's aim is to clarify who wields control over the dam's future.

It certainly makes sense the property's owner would hold all the decision-making authority. A city task force recommended removing the dam and creating a "side-channel" lake, a middle-ground response some critics say won't work. The city's Parks Board recommended dam removal and restoration of the creek.

Bentonville's progress toward a solution, however, has been stymied by the property's past. Once upon a time, the property's owner was Cooper Communities Inc., parent company of Cooper Realty Investments. Cooper Communities developed Bella Vista as a planned recreational and retirement community starting in the mid-1960s.

Cooper Realty Investments owned the Lake Bella Vista property, including the dam, until ownership was transferred in 2000 to a nonprofit Trailblazers Association that promotes and develops cycling and walking facilities in Northwest Arkansas. That group subsequently transferred ownership of the property to the city of Bentonville in 2005.

Last August, John Cooper III said in a letter to the city of Bentonville that the conveyance -- transferring ownership of real estate -- to the Trailblazers included a requirement that the owner "shall maintain the dam and in the event of damage or destruction replace or repair same. "

Cooper contends the obligations of that conveyance became Bentonville's responsibility when it acquired the property and outlined his company's expectation that Bentonville live up to the agreement.

Is Bentonville bound? One would certainly have reason to wonder why a city would take on a multimillion-dollar responsibility that it had no decision-making power to avoid even if removing the dam makes more sense under a modern-day microscope.

The recent lawsuit by Bentonville finally goes where this dispute was bound to end up -- into the courtroom. While most of the time we think people and organizations ought to avoid litigation, this is a case in which there really doesn't appear to be any better option. The legal claims will prevent any long-term solution until Bentonville can know for sure what its legal rights are.

At stake will be millions in taxpayer dollars. If the taxpayers of Bentonville, as the property's owner, are going to shoulder the burden for the property's future, it seems entirely proper that Bentonville should hold the power to decide what's best for the property.

Preservation of Lake Bella Vista is, for some, a sentimental matter. Once upon a time, it was a place where people created lasting memories of its scenic views, restaurant and other features. The condition of the dam and the uncertainty of what can and should be done to it has diminished the park's role as an amenity, so it's really in everyone's interest to discern a better future for it.

If the lawsuit does bind Bentonville to only replacement of the dam, here's an idea: Can the land acquisition be undone on the basis of that new information? It might be a tall order, depending on the legal language of the contracts, but if someone claims to control the future of the dam and surrounding property, that someone ought to be the one to bear the financial burden of such a decision.

Kudos to Bentonville for moving the Lake Bella Vista dam dispute into the courts so the legal logjam can finally be cleared up and, hopefully, the city will be able to proceed with clarity.

Commentary on 05/22/2019

Print Headline: Clearing the obstruction

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