Benton Planning Commission approves Longhills rezone request

A request to rezone Longhills Golf Course from single-family residential to Planned Unit Development was unanimously approved by the Benton Planning and Zoning Commission on Tuesday night, but not before lengthy discussion that involved both supporters and opponents to the proposal.
The request, one of two items on the commission's agenda, had drawn a standing-room-only crowd.
The commission normally conducts its meetings in the conference room of the Community Development Department at Benton City Hall. In anticipation of a large crowd, however, the meeting was moved to the City Council chambers.
In regard to the changed zoning designation for Longhills, Commission Chairman Pam Gibson explained that a PUD is a development in which a mixed use of activities may be held. The change in designation would allow for construction of apartment home complexes on the property while keeping the current golf course, clubhouse and swimming pool. Once a PUD plan has been approved, it cannot be changed.
Prior to the public comment section of the meeting, representatives from Lindsey Management presented a slide show of the proposed site plan for the Longhills property. The main entrance to the property was shown to be the existing entrance on Arkansas 5. An earlier version of the site plan had an additional entrance along Longhills Road directly behind Landers Chevrolet. Lindsey representatives stated this entrance was removed based upon feedback and concerns from residents in the Dark Forest subdivision.
The plan presented to the commission listed 792 units to be built, averaging 4.67 units per acre on the 176.56-acre site. The units would be contained within 34.42 acres, leaving 142.14 acres as green space.
A plan showing a comparison of the apartment units and a representation of what 792 single home sites on the property was shown. The comparison was later challenged as a "scare tactic" by one of the speakers during public comment.
Those speaking in favor of the rezoning were equal in number to those speaking in opposition.
The concerns of those opposed to the rezoning request included increased traffic, lowering of property values for those who purchased golf course lots and the potential for increased crime in the area.
Those in favor of the request listed the need to preserve the golf course and its beneficial effect on the city.
Terry Jensen, a resident of Longhills Village, presented an alternative for the future of the golf course. Jensen noted that, "We are a special improvement district" and suggested the residents of the area purchase the course, therefore keeping the area as single-family residence development. Jensen cited the Silver Springs development in Haskell as an example.
Longhills resident Bart Ferguson spoke to the commission in opposition to the rezoning request. Ferguson claimed the city "doesn't have sewer capacity and a new power line will have to be run.
Ferguson also questioned the urgency of the sale of the course by saying, "I've never seen a 'for sale' sign on the property and now, all of a sudden, there is an emergency to sell the property."
Carol Martin Blann, whose parents built Longhills in 1954, responded to Ferguson by addressing the commission. Blann said, "I am one of 50 shareholders and a board member of Longhills. Four years ago the board decided to sell the course. We have to sell. We didn't all of a sudden decide to sell it. Lindsey is the only one interested in buying it."
Blann pointed out that Jack McCray is broker for the sale of the property and approached Lindsey with the idea of purchasing the property.
Jim Lindsey addressed the commission and spoke about the safety concerns at the proposed complex. "We will have our own guards there. We have a policy in place on how to take care of our businesses and know what to do. We have statistics that show there is less criminal activity on our properties than the cities at large where we have complexes."
Once the public comment portion of the meeting ended, commission members were allowed to ask questions regarding the proposed development. Commissioner Eric Rytima asked the Lindsey representative if there would be a continued commitment of the Longhills course to the junior golf programs and to the golf teams at the local schools.
The Lindsey representative responded by saying, "We will absolutely commit to matching or exceeding the current commitment to those programs and the local schools."
The commission determined that all requirements had been met to accommodate the zoning change and that utilities were available for the site. The vote to approve the request was unanimous.
Following the meeting, Lindsey was asked what he thought about the chances for the city council voting to approve the PUD given the fact that no multi-unit developments have been approved by the council since 2008. "We think they (council) will be fair to us. We have no reason to believe they won't be. We think everyone can see the benefit of keeping the course going. We hope to keep Longhills going," Lindsey said.
He added, "If Longhills closes or fails, our development at Hurricane Creek in Bryant will benefit from it because Benton will lose its only 18-hole course."
The request will now go before the City Council during its Jan. 9, 2012 meeting.
In other business, the commission unanimously approved the preliminary plat for The Meadows at Centennial Valley Phase 2.