story by Ryan Saylor
Of the many bills to make their way through the Arkansas General Assembly this year, only one likely brought to light the very heated disagreements that cities and counties sometimes have.
HB 1773 changes the jurisdictional guidelines that have been in place for decades.
Under current law, cities have planning jurisdiction up to five miles outside of city limits, meaning zoning requirements must be followed even though the land is in the county.
The way the new law is written, the zone would be reduced to a maximum of three miles, depending on a city's population.
According to Crawford County Judge John Hall, who testified before a House committee on the need for a change in the law, the current jurisdictional boundaries place an undue burden on counties and could be unconstitutional.
"According to this law that they have on the books, the city can tell you how to build your roads five miles (out) from the city limits out in the county," he said. "It is the County Judges' Association's opinion that they don't have the authority. The (Arkansas) Constitution says all authority outside of city limits is the jurisdiction of the county judge."
EMERGENCY RESPONSE ISSUE
White County Judge Michael Lincoln, who serves as president of the County Judges' Association of Arkansas, said the original intent was to have land that would eventually be annexed by the city already be up to standard with the city's code whenever the land was officially brought under city jurisdiction. But he said cities were taking it too far.
"Some (counties) were having issues with cities wanting to enforce city regulations in the 'halo' area and it was becoming more of an issue," he said.
Lincoln said it was not only an issue of planning, but also emergency response. He said many rural counties, and even some populated counties, were having disputes over which law enforcement agencies had jurisdiction in emergency situations.
"They were having trouble with pockets of un-annexed area developing that was creating some issues in emergency services, not being clear what fire department covered what area," he said.
Don Zimmerman, executive director of the Arkansas Municipal League, said counties were not being reasonable in their demands for less city jurisdiction.
He said because the bill reduced jurisdiction to one mile in many cases and it would not give cities exclusive jurisdiction, it made planning for the future more difficult.
"We think that's a real problem to take that word 'exclusive' out of there," he said.
Asked about Hall's comments on the constitutionality of the current law, Zimmerman dismissed the accusations.
"It's been before many courts without it being declared unconstitutional,” he said.
According to Zimmerman, HB 1773 is begging for a lawsuit to be filed.
"There's one of the issues – the exclusive jurisdiction. If you don't have that, it's probably a lawsuit on many decisions there. Whose plans are you going to follow on plans for the area if nobody has exclusive jurisdiction for the area? It's just a recipe for litigation and fights," he said.
While the entire fight may only be over land, it has gotten quite personal between many parties involved.
Following an impassioned speech by Sen. Bill Sample, R-Hot Springs, in favor of the legislation last Thursday, Zimmerman made his feelings known to members of the Municipal League and held nothing back in an e-mail obtained by The City Wire.
"Unfortunately, Senator Sample was still upset with us in the afternoon when he made his emotional speech on Rep. Cozart's HB 1773 and passed it after telling the Senate how bad we were. We still feel HB 1773 is bad public policy for many reasons and hope somehow we will not saddle Arkansas with it's provisions based on an unfortunate and regrettable incident.
"Hopefully, Senator Sample and I can one day be friends again as I do think he represents Garland County very well. But most of all we don't want bad feelings to result in bad law."
While the disagreements over this legislation did spill over into personal animosity between Zimmerman and Sample, Hall said his feelings about the jurisdictional rules would not sour his relationship with Crawford County mayors, including Van Buren Mayor Bob Freeman, who declined to be interviewed for this story.
"We both have different opinions on this one issue. But it's not an animosity thing, it's just everybody can't agree on everything. Nobody's going to agree on everything. It's just a turf issue is what it amounts to," Hall said. "We'll still be friends when it's over and we'll continue working on the issues important to this county."
Zimmerman said following passage in the Senate, the bill had been re-referred to the House Committee for Concurrance.
"But unless the governor vetoes (the bill), we have a new law,” Zimmerman said.
The bill passed in the House by an 81 to 9 vote, with 10 members not voting. The Senate, in its second vote on the measure, approved the new law by a 20 to 11 vote, with 4 not voting.