The future of Longhills Golf Course and Country Club appears to be just as uncertain after a lengthy and occasionally emotional City Council meeting Monday night as it was before the session began.
In that meeting, proponents and opponents shared their views of a proposal to rezone the area to allow construction of an apartment complex that would preserve the existing course and its related amenities.
Bud Busken and other owners of the property plan to sell the site to developer Jim Lindsey whose development plans include building an adjacent apartment complex that could offset the mounting expenses of operating a golf course.
Busken has noted that golf courses throughout the country are suffering because of a downturn in the economy and less discretionary time among families. He and the other owners say they have tried to develop a plan that will best serve the community while allowing them to sell the property and retire. He has noted that it definitely will be sold in some fashion, but he believes the proposal from Lindsey will help the community preserve the course and the services it provides to area residents, including many charitable groups.
The ordinance the council is considering would rezone the property from its current single-family housing designation to planned unit development.
When Lindsey spoke briefly at the meeting, he emphasized that the plan is for a "PUD, not a HUD project."
He pledged to allow memberships in the golf course as well as public play.
In round-robin style, Benton Mayor David Mattingly allowed speakers for and against the proposal to speak alternately, limiting comments of each to five minutes.
The council did not vote on the proposal, but the first reading of the proposed ordinance was presented. Although holding a public legislative hearing Friday night was suggested, by the time that three hours of comments had been heard, the council abandoned that notion.
First to speak was Mark Bolding, a recent resident of Benton, who lives in Longhils Village. He does not favor the project, but primarily emphasized the danger in allowing this issue to divide the community.
John Campbell, who represented the Property Owners Association of Longhills, reported that he conducted a house-to-house survey in which he attempted to speak with 234 families. According to Campbell, 121 went on record as supporting the project, 46 were against it and two were undecided.
Benton attorney Terry Jensen, a resident of Longhills Village, stated his objection to the plan, mainly that the proposal deviates from the current single-family designation of the area.
"Had I known this could be changed, I would never have invested in Longhills Village," he said.
Ken Quick, who has lived in other cities where there are similar developments, said he and his wife did not experience any adverse effects from living in the area of apartment development.
"Cities can respond to opportunities," he said.
Developer Bart Ferguson responded to Quick's comments, saying, " ... This ain't Dallas. We're not against growth; we're for protecting what we've bought. We like to protect the integrity of single-family living," he said.
Later in the meeting Ferguson questioned owner Bud Busken about the urgency of the issue, saying he never was aware of the property being for sale.
"I never saw any 'for sale' sign," he said.
Busken said it never was a secret that the property was for sale. He did not state so in the meeting, but this newspaper has published stories about the owners' negotiations with the city about the possible purchase of the site some time back.
Ferguson also raised concerns about increased traffic that apartments would generate and about increased utility capacity, contending that allowing apartments "could limit future development."
He urged the council not to "make an emotional decision," pointing out that he considers the Buskens to be "friends and great people."
Dan Jordan, acting superintendent of the Benton School District, pointed out that approving the plan that would allow the apartment construction would mean additional students enrolling in the Benton School District.
While others claimed that some Benton schools were at capacity, Jordan pointed out that Benton enrollment is down this year.
In response to a question from Alderman Joe Lee Richards, he noted that the additional students would mean considerably more revenue for the Benton School District.
State funding is based on "average daily membership," Jordan said.
Another individual who spoke in favor of the proposal was Greg Kirksey, a local minister who resides in Longhills Village. He told the council he "and a majority of my neighbors are in favor of the Lindsey proposal."
"Contrary to what many want to believe, the issue before us is the preservation of Longhills Golf Course," Kirksey said. "It appears the last and best option is to approve the Lindsey proposal, who has a proven track record of beautifully landscaped courses throughout our region. Without approval, the golf course will almost certainly close, and I believe it would be an unnecessary loss."
He cited three reasons he believes the plan should be approved, noting that it would be "an investment in Benton’s fabric, Benton's families and Benton's future."
Regarding the fabric components, Kirksey said, "Longhills is an integral part of the history and heritage of Benton…a centerpiece of the recreational culture of our community," he said.
He noted that Longhills' positive reputation became known to him more than two decades ago, even before he had moved to Benton. He said he drove almost two hours from south Arkansas "just to play golf long before I ever moved here."
"When my family was considering moving here 21 years ago…one of the first places those showing us the city wanted my family to see was Longhills Golf course and swimming pool.
" ... Longhills is part of the fabric of my own life. My daughter learned to swim here and met many friends through Longhills."
Kirksey speculated that "many people in this room," including some council members, "have pleasant memories etched upon your hearts and minds which took place while playing a round of golf with friends at Longhills."
"Without the approval of the Lindsey proposal, this rich heritage of Benton will be only a memory," he said.
Regarding the investment in families, he said, "The owners of Longhills have made a significant and often sacrificial investment in our families for years. They have opened their course for charity events, which supported many of the humanitarian needs of those in our community. They have made the course available for the golf teams from our local schools…which by the way has produced some outstanding young golfers.
They have opened the course and promoted the Junior Golf program for our kids ... without the approval of the Lindsey proposal, this valuable program for our young families will be lost.
Finally, Longhills is an investment in the future of Benton," he said.
Referring to the city's consideration of purchasing the golf course some time back, he pointed out that "you never would have even considered such a major expenditure if you did not recognize the importance of the golf course to Benton."
"I commend you for making a wise financial decision in choosing not to have the city invest in the golf course during these difficult economic times ... but now I appeal to you to make an equally wise financial decision and invest in Longhills and Benton’s future by approving the proposal before you.
Busken told the group that preserving Longhills through the Lindsey group would be "doing the right thing."
"All I have asked people to do is keep an open mind and research each issue, on both sides, so that an informed decision can be made," he said.
"Benton needs and deserves Longhills Golf Course, a public facility for all to enjoy and a member-driven swimming pool," Busken said.
Speaking of recent occurrences in Benton, he said, "We have the ball rolling. Funding for an events center, which I voted for ... passed by a popular vote by a large margin. The four-year degree program with UALR is a great attraction for Benton. Let's not build a roadblock by allowing Longhills to become a housing development."
Also speaking for the project was Carol Martin Blann, whose father developed Longhills.
"It was his dream," she said, "and the people of Benton got behind him. They no longer had to drive to Little Rock and Hot Springs to play golf."
She pointed out the numerous charities that have been assisted through the golf course.
Blann noted that she has continued to be a shareholder in the course even though all the rest of her original family members are now deceased.
Jack McCray, who has guided the owners through the proposal with Lindsey, said, "You do not know what we've been through. I have voted my shares to Jim Lindsey because he's the only person who will keep the golf course and pool on the property."
To the council, he said:
"Do you people want to go back to 1953 when there was nothing out there? If not, then vote 'yes.'"
Although no vote was taken on the ordinance, Richards went on record as stating he is for the project.
"And I have a record of voting against apartments," he said. "But I knew Bill Martin. He had a dream and the people got behind him.
"I'm for this and I think we need to do it," he said.