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ZONED-OUT: City Reverses Planning Commission Rezoning Decision

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February 15, 2012 by wcobserver

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WEST FORK — Long-time residential and agricultural zones in West Fork are now open to spot commercial zoning thanks to a unanimous, but spiritedly debated, decision from the city council on Tuesday, Feb. 14. The issue is the result of anl appeal made by Mike Landa, whose request to rezone his residential property to commercial was denied by the West Fork Planning Commission during its January meeting.

“Why do I want to rezone?” asked Landa rhetorically, during his lengthy and animated presentation. “Because it’s my right.” Landa, near the conclusion of council’s discussion, said the “big thing is, I want a bigger deduction, too, on my taxes.”

There were other reasons Landa, who is chairman of the planning commission, appealed the commission’s decision. Those reaons were presented by his Bentonville lawyer, Darrell Gibby.

Gibby said the planning commission process was “tainted” because of the votes from married commissioners Bob  Staats and Robyn Wilson. Gibby called it “undo influence” and reported that Mayor Frances Hime, a neighbor of Landa’s, contacted members of the planning commission to “influence the decision.” None of this speculative evidence was corroborated by counsel at the meeting, although Hime and Landa are currently in litigation over a 2007 real estate deal.

Other evidence brought forth by Gibby were various properties already being used for “commercial” purposes near Landa’s property. He cited several examples, among them a classic car shop (which is outside the city limits), Hime’s log-home business, Bearbitten (which has been out of business since 2007), a sign advertising construction (though apparently not on the site), firewood sales (which are permitted by ordinance) and a large cattle fence.

Landa currently operates a “home office” for his business, keeps equipment for his refurbished aerial towers on his property, and plans to host swimming lessons. With regard to his numerous enterprises, Landa promised the council several times that he would not expand his commercial enterprises beyond what’s cureently there; that the property would remain quiet; and that through traffic would be kept to a minimum. It was a promise some of the council members seemed eager to hear.

Much of the forceful questioning regarding the rezoning came from council members Anita Lowry and Charlie Rossetti. Their biggest concern being the potentially undesired precedent set by the council’s rezoning decision.

“You can say that ‘I live here, I want to do the business, and nothing will ever change,’ but we know that that can’t be guaranteed,” said Rossetti. “So your intentions may be completely honorable. But a month from now, a year from now, that whole thing could change. And your property, zoned commercial, could be owned by someone else doing some kind of commercial operation.”

The only other person who spoke against Landa’s rezoning was his neighbor, Jim Caylor, whose property lies directly south of Landa’s.

“I understand Mike’s desire to run his business … I’m not against business. I don’t particularly want it next to my house,” Caylor said. He continued later: “I agree that he has the right to grow his business. I want to see him do that. But I don’t want it to be in a manufacture, distributing, storing application in what is essentially a residential, agricultural area.”

Caylor said allowing the commercial rezoning would “allow the nose of a camel under the tent,” opening up the possibility of other commercial ventures to operate undesirable operations in residential areas.

West Fork city attorney Tom Kieklak advised the city council that following the planning commission’s recommendation would safeguard the city against litigation or zoning disputes in the future. The council members also considered a motion to allow Landa a conditional use permit for his current enterprises, a suggestion Landa balked at because it would not assist with his tax deductions.

With the property paid for and in a trust to his daughter, Landa promised to not sell the property to anyone wishing to utilize the full extent of the commercial zone.

The decision to spot-zone a residential property to commercial is a change for the council. The long-brewing rezoning issue has its roots in the roughly 25-acre, agricultural-zoned property that abuts the residential zone on which Landa’s property sits.

In 1999, then-owner of the property, Casey Shepherd, applied for an industrial rezoning. He was denied, three times, before selling the land to Allied Enterprise, a subsidiary of the Arkansas & Missouri Railroad, five months later. The railroad, has shown demonstrated interest in constructing a waste-management station as well as warehousing.

Mayor Hime was not in attendance, recusing herself from the appeal because of her litigation with Landa. Charlie Rossetti, who served as mayor pro tem during the meeting, is currently engaged in a real estate deal with Landa. The appeal passed 6-0. Councilman John Foster was not in attendance.

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