Pleasant Valley Roundabout Project Highlights Civic Politics

by George Waldon  on Monday, May. 19, 2014 12:00 am  

A vocal minority in Pleasant Valley set a $600,000 street improvement project in motion nearly two years ago to slow traffic near Fulbright Elementary School.

A vocal minority in the west Little Rock neighborhood, led by a federal judge, managed to derail the project last month after the city spent $50,000 to develop construction plans in preparation to start construction.

No one can say for certain whether a majority of the 950-plus PV property owners want or don’t want a roundabout built at Pleasant Valley and Arkansas Valley drives.

The civic imbroglio is a case study of how things get done and don’t get done in Little Rock. It also raises questions about how a project that is greenlighted to go can be stopped in what appears to be the 13th hour.

“What is our process going to be?” said Gene Fortson, city director at large. “It went through the filter of four or five steps of the way, and now it’s not going to get done?

“The real problem is the process.”

Unless supporters intervene, the roundabout project appears to be headed for legislative redaction at city hall.

The ward representative for the area that includes Pleasant Valley is washing his hands of the project after conducting what some describe as a surprise straw poll vote that resulted in resounding opposition to the roundabout.

“It’s dead,” said Brad Cazort, city director representing Ward 4. “We’ll go back and amend the ordinance.”

The vote came out of a special public hearing that Cazort called and which was held April 8 at the Fulbright Elementary cafeteria.

A public notice of the meeting gave no indication that a vote would be taken that would decide the fate of the project.

An email sent out by Cazort about the meeting doesn’t mention anything about a vote: “City staff and I will be present to explain the project in more detail and answer questions. Whether you support or oppose the project, just have questions or need to know more details, I strongly urge you to attend.”

Asked about the apparent lack of notice regarding the vote, Cazort said: “In my mind, I thought we were clear about it.”

The show-of-hands vote conducted by Cazort led to the project being officially shelved until it is formally killed by the board of directors.

Whether Cazort’s informal referendum reflects a majority view of the neighborhood is debatable.

Some Pleasant Valley residents give credit for thwarting the roundabout project to U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright Carter, who lives at the southeast corner of the intersection that would have been reconfigured.

She retained Edward Oglesby, a partner in the Little Rock office of the Kutak Rock law firm, to champion her cause and help raise opposition.

Carter couldn’t be reached for comment. Oglesby declined comment.

On the judge’s behalf, Oglesby was successful in getting the Pleasant Valley Property Owners Association board of directors to take a vote on the matter in February.

The board voted 6-3 to op-pose the project, which drew rebukes from some Pleasant Valley residents who supported the project and advised board members not to take stances on issues where neighborhood opinion is clearly divided.

“The next time something like this comes up, you can expect a poll will be taken of the neighborhood,” said Jeff Yates, PVPOA director whose proxy vote was among three who said no to Oglesby.

Maybe this should’ve happened with the roundabout project before now.

“The emails flew like birds migrating,” Gene Fortson said of public commentary about the traffic-calming device.

“There is nothing that stirs up more emotion than land-use issues.”

A Project Deconstruction

2012

• July 24: Little Rock city officials hold a public meeting to gather public input on potential street improvement projects in Ward 4, which includes the Pleasant Valley neighborhood.

The meeting at St. James United Methodist Church is one in a series held in each of Little Rock’s seven wards that produces several thousand project suggestions.

Construction of a roundabout at Arkansas Valley and Pleasant Valley drives as a traffic-calming device is among the projects submitted by residents for consideration.

2013

• April 1: City officials hold a public meeting for Ward 4 at St. James to present summaries of citizen requests and to present staff recommendations for funding projects. The Pleasant Valley roundabout is among the items presented.

• May 21: After the second series of ward meetings and review of the proposed projects by the public works staff and the city board, Little Rock directors adopt Resolution 13699 by unanimous vote.

This resolution puts in motion a capital improvement program funded by a combination of bonds and sales tax to be designed and let for bid in the coming three-year funding cycle. The Pleasant Valley roundabout is included in the citywide program and is among 13 Ward 4 projects totaling $2.6 million slated for completion by 2015.

• July 9: The city board passes Resolution 13726 authorizing a contract with consulting engineers for design of the roundabout and other Ward 4 projects.

2014

• Jan. 27: Public Works Department staff conducts a public meeting at Terry Library to present the preliminary construction plans for the roundabout and two other projects in Ward 4.

The gathering is intended to be an informational meeting to address questions about the plans but also serves as a public debut for opposition to the roundabout. U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright Carter and her lawyer, Edward Oglesby, are among those in attendance. The roundabout will be built in front of Wright’s home at the southeast corner of Pleasant Valley and Arkansas Valley drives.

• Feb. 12: The roundabout becomes part of the agenda at a meeting of the Pleasant Valley Property Owners Association board of directors. Eleven opponents, representing nine Pleasant Valley households, attend the meeting. Oglesby, Wright’s attorney, makes a presentation on why the roundabout is a bad idea. Oglesby persuades the board to take a vote on the project.

Lawyer Rick Campbell, a member of the PVPOA board, makes a motion that the board oppose the roundabout project and send a letter to the city to let city officials know about the board’s vote. Gary Jefferson seconds the motion, which passes with a 6-3 vote.

• April 8: Ward 4 Director Brad Cazort holds a special public meeting at Fulbright Elementary School after receiving emails and phone calls aplenty about the roundabout project, both for and against.

Public announcements about the meeting don’t mention that a vote will be taken to decide the future of the project. However, early in the meeting, Cazort indicates the fate of the roundabout will be determined here.

After public commentary and discussion, Cazort calls for a show of hands vote regarding the project. An unofficial tally by one attendee estimates the count at 60-15 in favor of scuttling the project.

It will take a vote by the board of directors to amend the enabling ordinance for the project to officially kill it.

 

 

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