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Different values, different viewpoints

Sometimes memories just won't give us any peace. The one nagging me lately features my dad and his oldest childhood friend. They went to the same schools growing up, attended the University of Arkansas, and Chester even got Ernie a date with Lois, the co-ed Ernie later married. I came along about five years later.

In most things, Chester and Ernie were very different from each other. Their career paths diverged with my dad becoming a newspaperman and Chester becoming a builder and developer. The two men lived in different states for most of their working years and saw each other infrequently.

Several years after my parents moved to Fayetteville, Chester and his wife retired here as well, so the two old friends again shared time together. They teased each other about their differences, Chester chiding my dad about his total absence of fashion sense and my dad elbowing Chester about his overblown attention to appearances. The two worked on a few projects together in Chester's spotless wood shop and stayed away from talking politics.

But it was probably a day when they went for a drive in the country that indicated that never their twains would meet. As Ernie rounded a curve, the view that stretched before them was of beautiful hills, a valley and a river running through it all. Just as Ernie was about to express his awe and love of the Ozarks, Chester said, "Look at all that land going to waste!"

If Ernie had said those same words, with a sweep of his arm across a vista of housing developments, would Chester have been just as aghast? Possibly. The two old friends, then in their 70s, had never seen things the same way and evidently never would. I don't know about Chester, but for Ernie, I think that final stark difference lodged in his core, and he did not want to feel that pain again.

The memory of their friendship has come hurling back to me as values clash yet again over what land to keep open and what land to use up. "Land use planning" is done by Fayetteville's Development Services staff and the Planning Commission, which is made up of citizens appointed by the City Council. They follow a Unified Development Code to guide how developers and individuals use land according to current planning trends.

Chester would have agreed with most of their approvals because the decisions have to do with using the land instead of what use land is. Ernie would have grieved when yet another expanse of soil was paved over, never to grow anything green again. Chester would have seen progress; Ernie would have seen destruction. Chester would have seen housing for all who move to Northwest Arkansas; Ernie would have seen the absence of equal and parallel planning for what keeps cities environmentally healthy.

What is missing from city planning in Fayetteville, and I'd wager it's same situation all over the country, is a Department of Land Function. Huge swaths of ground are developed without ever knowing what ecosystems were once there. We don't analyze how a particular area of soil absorbs water to resupply the aquifers beneath the surface. We have some rules about tree preservation that are based more on what percentage can be cut than on what their loss will mean overall to air and water quality and the heating of our town. We haven't figured how many functioning natural systems we can "waste" (to quote Chester) before we have a collapse of our basic needs. On a large scale, climate change is giving us a clue, but we still aren't listening on our small scale.

We can have opposite values and still respect that opinions differ. However, across Northwest Arkansas, green space and significant natural areas, like Markham Hill in Fayetteville, are or could be devoured by development. I suspect Chester would have declared that landowners should be able to build whatever is allowed in their zone; Ernie would have argued no, not if zoning is so generic it allows irretrievable loss of places that function for the benefit of the community as a whole.

As both global and local citizens, we are going to have to calculate what we can environmentally spend and what we need to save. The more we lose the quality of life, the deeper the differences will wedge us apart as a community and as friends. I saw what it did to Ernie and Chester.

Commentary on 02/11/2020

Print Headline: Not seeing eye to eye

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