Wildwood Developer Wins First of Five Lawsuits

by George Waldon  on Monday, Oct. 10, 2011 12:00 am  

Residential developer Graham Smith has moved one step closer to making his proposed 85-lot Wildwood Ridge project street legal, literally.

An improvement district formed by Smith was authorized to acquire a 7,189-SF strip of land along Gordon Road from Deltic Timber Corp. Court-ordered price tag for the property: $2,100.

The eminent domain action provides Smith's 40-acre tract direct access to Chenal Valley Drive, overcoming one obstacle to starting construction.

But other hurdles remain before site work can begin on a development that, by Smith's reckoning, could generate a gross profit of $6.5 million.

The order, signed by Pulaski County Circuit Judge Chris Piazza on Sept. 28, gave immediate ownership of the Deltic land to Smith's Little Rock
Municipal Property Own-ers' Multipurpose Improve-ment District No. 2011-312.

"The court's decision takes away the city attorney's argument against the approval of this subdivision," Smith said in a prepared statement. "Regardless of whether Gordon Road was closed or not, Wildwood now has legal access, the planning commission has approved it and the development should go forward. We do not see any reason why the city attorney should continue to oppose this subdivision."

Smith also has battled Deltic's opposition to his development. The corporate developer of Chenal Valley tried without success for years to gain control of the property Smith owns.

"While we understand the judge's ruling, we have not actually seen the ruling, so we reserve our right to comment," said Craig Douglass, Deltic spokesman.

Despite Smith's victory, four other legal battles remain, with the possibility of new ones joining the docket. He needs another sliver of land from an adjoining property owner to round out his access to Chenal Valley Drive.

Smith hopes to acquire it from Sylvia Butler without having to return to court with another eminent domain action through his improvement district. Butler, who lives across Gordon Road from Smith's patch of woods and is surrounded by Deltic land to the north, south and east, doesn't want to get caught up in the development fray between her neighbors.

"Let them do whatever they want; just leave me out of it," Butler said in an interview earlier this year.

Smith anticipates another trip to court to gain access to water, sewer, electricity and gas services for his project after rejecting Deltic Timber's offer to grant access to utility easements on its property for $935,000.

"The utilities have told me I don't have to pay tie-on fees to Deltic Timber," Smith said. "But because of the way Deltic did the utilities, I'll have to come back and do an eminent domain to get one foot of land to tie on to sewer."

After passage of a now-controversial 2001 ordinance, Deltic Timber completed the Chenal Valley Drive loop and rerouted a portion of Gordon Road between Denny Road and Chenal Valley Drive.

The reworked road network allowed Deltic to develop the Sezanne neighborhood over a portion of the original Gordon Road right of way. The rerouting also created a cul-de-sac on a portion of the original Gordon Road that ends at the northern border of the Sezanne project.

This dead-end street is the disputed section of Gordon Road. The road remains open to traffic, provides access to Butler's home and serves as a boundary between her land and Smith's property.

A string of ongoing lawsuits is wound around the question of how an open road that provides physical access for Butler can be legally closed to development access for Smith.

The disputed 2001 ordinance combined with Deltic's routing of Chenal Valley Drive effectively landlocked Smith's acreage to development. The courts have yet to weigh in on this overarching issue.


Courtroom Battles

Smith received approval of his preliminary plat to develop 27 acres from the Little Rock Planning Commission on March 10. However, City Attorney Tom Carpenter blocked his efforts to get a building permit.

Carpenter filed an administrative lawsuit on April 11 to overturn the Planning Commission's 6-4 vote approving the project.

His stance is that Gordon Road was closed to development by city ordinance in 2001, and the commission's approval violated the ordinance.

A majority of the Planning Com-mission believed Carpenter's take on the ordinance didn't make sense and ran contrary to the city's historic land-use policy to protect access for property owners. The commission approved Smith's project despite warnings from Deputy City Attorney Cindy Dawson regarding the legality of the panel's action.

Smith sued the city on March 16 challenging Carpenter's position on the ordinance that allegedly abandoned Gordon Road and cut off development access to his property.

Six months later, both cases remain dormant before Pulaski County Circuit Judge Mary McGowan.

In June, Smith sued Stewart Title Co. after he was twice denied title insurance coverage regarding legal fees in his battle to develop his 40 acres adjoining Gordon Road.

Stewart Title allegedly proclaimed the public record indicated that Gordon Road was "still a dedicated public right-of-way" before Smith paid $1.4 million for the land in January.

This case is in Pulaski County Circuit Court before Judge Tim Fox. Both sides have filed briefs and await his decision.

Meanwhile, in federal court in Little Rock, Smith has sued the city through his Wildwood Partners LLC.

The complaint alleges violations of his constitutional rights protected by the Fifth and 14th Amendments. Smith equated the city's actions regarding access to Gordon Road as an illegal taking without just compensation.

The city attorney has denied those allegations and maintains the dispute is grounded in issues that should be resolved in state court. U.S. District Judge Leon Holmes heard arguments last week and will decide whether to hear or dismiss the case.



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