Politics and land-use planning in Craighead County

by Paul Holmes ([email protected]) 293 views 

Maybe it’s the weather. A chilly and rainy April didn’t seem at all like the prelude to our usual hot, steamy election-year month of May in Arkansas, filled with equally hot primary races. Or maybe this time of year hasn’t felt like this time of year because it’s different now.

Indeed, there are party primaries for the gubernatorial nomination. Democrats Jared Henderson and Leticia Sanders are drawing scant attention for their gubernatorial pursuits from the pundits who are instead watching the contest on the other side of the aisle between incumbent Gov. Asa Hutchinson and gun-range owner Jan Morgan.

Hutchinson leads handily, according to a recent Talk Business & Politics/Hendrix College poll. Hutchinson will face the winner of the Henderson-Sanders contest and Libertarian Mark West in the fall but seems unlikely to have serious difficulty retaining the office.

Closer to home, one race that also serves to put into perspective the political shift that has occurred over the past decade in eastern Arkansas is the contest for Craighead County Judge.

On May 22, Craighead County voters will decide — in the Republican primary — between Jeff Presley and Marvin Day. Winning the Republican primary will be tantamount to election because in formerly solid-blue Craighead County, there is no Democrat running. Incumbent Ed Hill, a Democrat, is retiring at the end of this year.

The winner of the Day-Presley race will serve the first four-year term as county judge since a constitutional amendment passed by the voters in 2016 doubled the term of office for county officials from two to four years.

Presley is director of the Jonesboro-based E-911 dispatch center that serves the county. Day is an engineer for Jonesboro City Water and Light. In a recent appearance at the Jonesboro Kiwanis Club, the two were polite and professional. They often found agreement, particularly when it came to the need to begin the county’s annual budget process earlier in the year and the need for a crisis stabilization unit for mental health patients who might otherwise wind up in jail.

Near the end of the civic club debate-style program, moderator Richard Wang asked if this is the time the county should consider creating a land-use plan that includes zoning regulations.

Presley said the institution of zoning regulations is something the citizens, not the county judge or quorum court, should decide before the county begins regulating land that has been used a certain way for years. Additionally, he said, lack of infrastructure would complicate land-use planning in rural areas of the county. He noted there are 1,300 miles of county roads and just 200 miles are paved. Many need work before any land-use planning could be done, he said.

Day, an engineer who worked for and co-owned a highway and heavy construction firm, said instituting land-use planning and zoning regulations is something at which the county should look. But he agreed with Presley that “you kind of hate to decide to put regulations on” previously unregulated land, some of which might entail significant infrastructure needs that render projects too costly.

A former member and chairman of the Jonesboro Metropolitan Area Planning Commission, Day said the MAPC has planning authority within a 5- mile radius of Jonesboro, authority he said it does not exercise due to lack of manpower. The county, he said, does not exercise planning authority for the same reason.

Well, then, one might wonder, how would a land-use planning process begin in Craighead County, if it were to begin at all?

Perhaps, as the King counseled the White Rabbit, the process should begin at the beginning — in this instance, by explaining what the county leaders want to do with planning and zoning, why they want to do it and how they believe it will benefit the citizens. If the leaders want to put it to a vote of the citizens, as Presley suggested, information and education must precede the vote.

Referendum or not, laying out the facts could help on the front end to allay fears like those expressed years ago by a couple of my rural-dwelling high school classmates who live in another county that “some guy from the county’s gonna try to come out here and tell me what I can do on my own damn land.”

Craighead County leaders could also ask for advice from others in the state. For example, in rapidly developing Washington County, the majority of the land is zoned for agricultural and single family uses by right. All other uses may be allowed via the county’s conditional use permit process. And please note, Washington County does not enforce building codes.

So yes, under that system, a landowner could build a house on his single-family land and a farmer could put in his stock pen — but not a packing plant — on his agricultural land without the conditional use permit. That permit process comes into play when an owner or developer wishes to make a certain use for a tract of land not zoned for that use.

If a system like the one in Washington County is unworkable here, would perhaps the county ask the MAPC to begin exercising its authority beyond the city limits? Would that invite litigation?

Or will the new county judge determine that county residents don’t want land-use planning and zoning, since that’s the reason they moved outside the city limits in the first place? Both candidates expressed a willingness to look at the complex issue. Good thing the new guy will have four years.
Editor’s note: Paul Holmes is editor-at-large of the Northeast Arkansas Talk Business & Politics. He can be reached at [email protected].