Preserving open space focus of study
Posted: January 19, 2015 at 1:03 a.m.
Opportunities to be outdoors contribute substantially to the livability and quality of life in Northwest Arkansas and regional planners want to make sure open spaces are preserved for public use as the region grows.
Two public input sessions are set, one Tuesday in Fayetteville and a second Wednesday in Bentonville, to kick off a year-long regional open space study.
"It is the intent of the plan to focus on identifying natural open space assets, analyzing and assessing those assets and developing potential strategies for conserving those resources for the use of current and future generations," according to a Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Commission resolution.
A $350,000 grant from the Walton Family Foundation will pay the cost of the study.
"We really need people to come out and tell us what makes Northwest Arkansas a special place to them and what natural spaces are important to them," said John McLarty, a senior planner at the commission. "How often do they enjoy the outdoor activities, what do they do, where are their favorite places to go?"
Planners estimate Benton and Washington counties will have about three-quarters of a million people by 2040.
"We're going to continue to grow," McLarty said. "We need to keep these areas that are attracting people to this area now so that people won't be leaving in 2040. We want to preserve those assets and the quality of life."
Examples of open space include the regional trail system, national forests, state and national parks, wildlife management areas, rivers and areas around Beaver Lake, University of Arkansas agricultural property, city parks, properties held in trust and land owned by private nonprofit groups.
"This is very people-centered," McLarty said. "This is for the use of people."
John Pennington, executive director of the Beaver Watershed Alliance, said having open space is also important to preserving water quality in the region. Beaver Lake is the primary water source for most of the 500,000 residents in the region.
"The rapid population growth and the development associated with it can have a negative effect," Pennington said. "Working farms, working forests, old cemeteries, parks and recreation areas all help hold the water from rushing into the rivers and washing pollutants into Beaver Lake."
Pennington, who's also on the study's steering committee, said people need to turn out and let planners know about areas they think are important and would like to see protected.
"Some people know of a spot hardly anyone else knows about," Pennington said. "Those places could end up as a parking lot or a subdivision."
Elizabeth Bowen, project manager on the study, said there will be information available at the sessions about the project and schedule, growth in the region and the benefits of open space. She will have maps showing outdoor recreation areas, population densities, natural resources, the built environment and land uses.
Those attending can also identify on maps the outdoor areas they like to use, participate in a written survey and tell planners what areas they'd like to see protected.
Aubrey Shepherd, a member of the Ozark Headwaters Group and Arkansas Sierra Club executive committees, said he thinks all the environmental conservation groups in the region will get involved in the project.
"It's a good thing and it can make a big difference in the future," Shepherd said. "With growth coming, it needs to be done with the least possible impact on the land, water quality, air quality and quality of life of all species, including human beings."
The resulting plan will be incorporated into the region's long-term master plan.
The regional planning resolution accepting the grant says livability and quality of life initiatives are important to future economic development in Northwest Arkansas. A stated goal of the Walton Family Foundation is to preserve a sense of place.
McLarty said there was an open space plan for the area in 1970 but it hasn't been updated because there wasn't enough discretionary money available. The commission had been looking for money to do the study for awhile and the foundation's grant made it possible.
Some recognized benefits to preserving open space in communities include creating a high quality of life that attracts tax-paying businesses and residents; stimulating commercial growth and promoting city revitalization; boosting local economies by attracting tourists and supporting outdoor recreation, floodplain protection; proecting agricultural land to safeguard the future of farming economies and communities; and, safeguarding drinking water and clean air.
NW News on 01/19/2015