With nearly 150 people present, it was one of the largest gatherings at any city council meeting in the history of the city. The residents were landowners who live on Yankton Road, Kenner Road, and land off Highway 62/412 in Fulton County near Agnos, as well as other areas proposed for possible annexation.
Planning and Zoning Director Tom Hrezo was asked by Alderman Jerry Adams to explain the purpose of the annexation proposal to the large group. Council members said they knew nothing about the proposal until Feb. 17, when they began receiving calls and correspondence about the issue, that was discussed in planning and zoning meeting earlier in the week.
Hrezo explained the reason for the proposal, was the need for the city to gain land for expansion of retail businesses in the next 10-20 years. One landowner interrupted and explained to Hrezo that the area was developed by Cooper to be a retirement area, not a city. Others discussed the cost associated with providing city services to the proposed properties included in the annexation plan, including fire, water and police protection. All landowners present at the meeting were adamantly against the proposal.
"Our job is to help promote Cherokee Village, maintain property values for the people and to support planning and zoning codes. We are in a situation right now where we are a tourist community and a retirement community. We are at the stage where we can continue to do that or expand and try to become more of an aggressive town," Hrezo said.
He compared Cherokee Village with small towns surrounding the city which have numerous retail businesses and opportunities to generate sales tax revenue. Hrezo said other cities have competitive advantages since they have highway frontage. "Are we going to continue to be a retirement community with limited funds and with financial problems in the future? We are looking for ways 10-20 years down the line to help that situation. One of those ways is to look at Highway 62/412," he said. Hrezo was referring to an area that he said is expected to experience growth as a result of an eventual four lane expansion. He said by annexing this land, some of which is along the highway, the city will gain land that may later be developed for retail business as part of a growth plan for the future.
The discussion about new annexation began with a planning and zoning meeting on Feb. 1. The commission is currently reviewing options and Hrezo said there will be another meeting. The meeting time also drew controversy because zoning meetings occur during normal working hours. Former Alderman Peter Martin explained that while he served as alderman he attempted to get the time changed for the convience of the general public, but failed to do so.
Hrezo said annexation was placed on the council agenda to allow Planning and Zoning to seek funding for a survey of the land in question. Hrezo explained the department will not spend any money on the survey without approval from council, due to the city's budget crisis. The proposed annexation will not play a role in bettering the city's current financial situation.
Members of the audience attempted to further question Hrezo, but the mayor would not allow the line of questioning. They were told the topic would be tabled and discussed at the March meeting, and no immediate action would be taken on the matter.
Many residents voiced concern that last year's annexation of Cherokee Acres did not require a vote by the people and was passed by council, despite the opposition of all the property owners. The reason for the Cherokee Acres annexation was to include a 160 acre tract of land which was surrounded by the city, but had never been incorporated into the city limits.
The city council covered their normal business on a short agenda, with no actions taken. The public comments portion of the agenda revived annexation discussion.
Life-long resident, landowner and local realtor Phillip Orr sought permission to read a letter he had drafted about the annexation to Mayor Lloyd Hefley and the council. Hefley explained the issue was not going to be discussed further and asked for a motion to adjourn the meeting. After the motion was made, Alderman Jerry Adams and Ray Torbitt, Hrezo and the mayor walked out of the crowded council room and left the meeting. Prior to their departure, Orr handed each of the alderman the letter he would read, making the correspondence part of the record of the meeting. Aldermen Tom Thone, Lynn Maxedon, Kent Viers and Curtis Bratcher remained and allowed the group to discuss their concerns in depth.
In Orr's letter, he addressed numerous concerns with the proposal to annex 3,680 acres into the city, "I like where I live, I like my friends and neighbors, and I plan to defend our property rights to the bitter end." Orr said. "Until now, I have avoided your Cherokee Village City of planning and zoning, for many reasons. Until now, you have not made it my business to oppose your infringements on the rights of others. In reality, we should gate the community we occupy from Cherokee Village, until you gain the ability to govern yourself better. The fact that you could try to take control of the property of others that are doing a better job of controlling its use than you could ever dream of doing in Cherokee Village is evident."
Orr threatened that he and a large group of supporters would engage in a legal battle if the city moved forward with annexation.
It was also explained that Fulton County Judge, Charles Willett, who has been supportive of those living in the area, was in Little Rock, meeting with legislature to discuss proposed laws designed to make it more difficult for cities to annex land.
An employee of the Cherokee Village Senior Citizen's Center also spoke from the audience, "I will say that this village is searching outside its realm for income." She brought up information discussed at a previous meeting about requiring the center next door to pay rent, something that has always been free, and to pay a portion of the utilities; as the center has no budget. "The financial needs of this city are by far outgrowing the area of this city,"
Local land and business owner Bob Murphy praised Alderman Curtis Bratcher for standing up and discussing the annexation. Murphy said there are times when annexations are good, but said, "Not when it's a bailout." Murphy took the opportunity to comment about the other alderman, members of Planning and Zoning, with the exception of Glenn Harris, and the mayor leaving and not allowing their discussion to be included in the video recording of the meeting. "When you run and hide and be a spineless jellyfish, that's different now, I have no respect for someone that will run from you. These gentlemen who stayed are different, and I would like to thank each of them for listening to what we have to say."
Bratcher responded saying, "I don't think those five or six people have any more common sense than you people out here. You need to do your homework. My dad told me when I was a kid and I went hunting, He said son, 'Don't go bear hunting with a sling shot. If you do, be careful where you shoot and don't shoot yourself in the foot.' I don't think those six people have enough common sense to make the kind of decision they are trying to make." Bratcher went on to say, "The law does need to be changed, anytime that you can have five or six people tell a property owner what he can do on his own private property, that's not right. I think this annexation issue is dumb."
A second letter written by Beverly Nix, who owns land in Sharp County, was read. Nix serves on the Metropolitan Planning and Zoning Commission in Jonesboro. She questioned the lack of thought about the proposal. She posed a series of questions for the city's planning and zoning, including questioning if the property owners had expressed an interest in being annexed into the city, and the state of the Cherokee Village budget. She asked whether or not it was balanced or in deficit-in an attempt to establish motive for the annexation as being of a financial nature. She explained a city has only three years from the date of annexation to provide its citizens with city services which could be expensive, and require additional employees, such as police officers and fire fighters.
Nix also questioned the legality of the planning and zoning meeting, quoting rules included in the Freedom of Information Act. Nix stated, after reviewing the minutes from the meeting in which Hrezo said the discussion about annexation occurred, there was no mention of the topic. This led Nix to ask whether two or more members of the commission may have met in private and discussed the proposed topic without the required press notification of the meeting. She, too, asked the commission to stop the annexation issue.
Many members of the community continued to discuss their concerns after the meeting. Shalyn Lane and Melissa Jenkins, who both own day cares in the region to be considered for annexation, had concerns about losing their businesses. Lane said the city only allows two day cares, and the women were fearful of the annexation forcing them out of business. The majority of those who spoke were more concerned about losing a sense of freedom to stringent planning and zoning rules, and high SID taxes imposed within the city. The land owners were adamant they would fight until the issue was dropped, or file suit if necessary.
The topic will be discussed again at the March city council meeting and the large group assured the mayor and council they would be present at that meeting.
The Cherokee Village City Council meets the third Thursday of each month at 6:30 p.m.