LR Board Gets Final Say if Law Passes

LITTLE ROCK — The Little Rock Board of Directors will have final say on a proposed homeless-veterans clinic if an ordinance changing zoning laws passes at the board’s Tuesday meeting.
Under the proposed ordinance, building plans for anything from pawnshops to group-care facilities would have to go before the Planning Commission for a permit and eventually the Board of Directors for approval. Such uses are permitted “by right” now in most areas.

The ordinance also includes an emergency clause, meaning that if it is approved Tuesday, it will go into effect Wednesday.
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs officials have said in previous interviews that the agency has awarded a contract to move the current clinic from Second Street to the building at 1000 S. Main St. The plan has drawn mixed reaction from community members and criticism from several government officials including Mayor Mark Stodola.

City officials said Thursday that even though plans are in the works and the contract may have been signed, no building plan has been submitted seeking work permits from the city, so the clinic would still be subject to the change in the zoning laws.
“Based on the current zoning of the location in question, urban-use zoning comes with a series of design requirements,” said Tony Bozynski, the city’s director of planning and development. “We have not seen any plans for the project, but depending on the level of renovations, if they were to apply for a building permit or, say, a business license, then they would be subject to the conditional-use change.”

VA spokesman Debby Meece said Thursday that she did not have immediate access to the building plans for the Main Street clinic, and did not know whether the plans would require the agency to apply for building permits. Several other VA officials familiar with the project did not return calls for comment by Thursday evening.

The existing clinic provides veterans two meals a day, something the new clinic may need a commercial-grade kitchen to provide.
City Attorney Tom Carpenter said the ordinance was designed to clean up the city’s zoning laws and to address complaints about the lack of notification for neighbors and communities when specific businesses or centers open. He said city staff members discussed the clinic when they were drafting the ordinance but the conversation focused more heavily on other facilities.
“This may impact them [the clinic], but it was not designed to do so,” he said. “The ordinance came about when we were looking at the complaints we were getting about lack of notification and community discussion, and the types of places that we were hearing about are the ones we looked at.”

In addition to the current ordinance, Carpenter and City Manager Bruce Moore said they believe that the clinic would most likely need city approval because renovations on the building will add up to more than 50 percent of the building’s value.
However, because the VA has not submitted a construction plan or applied for a zoning exemption for parking, it’s unclear how much the renovation would cost.

Carpenter said the change wasn’t proposed to prevent projects that people might not want in their neighborhood.

Several city directors said Thursday that they were unaware that the ordinance would address the planned Main Street clinic. Some said they thought the ordinance was designed to address ongoing concerns with businesses selling alcohol. Others said they believed that the ordinance would change the rules for residential-treatment facilities only.

“I didn’t think about the ordinance in regards to the [homeless-veterans] center because we’re having so many problems with these convenience stores opening up and selling beer,” said at large City Director Joan Adcock. “If an issue comes to us, the Board of Directors is allowed to consider things like neighborhood input, social issues and other things, and the board does not always agree with the Planning Commission’s recommendation.”
Adcock was one of a handful of directors who have complained about how businesses selling alcohol are approved and how many of those stores can be put in a neighborhood or a close proximity to one another.

Moore and several city directors hope the ordinance will address those concerns, but officials at the state Alcoholic Beverage Control Division said the agency’s board does not consider local zoning matters when permitting alcohol sales.

“The city already gives notice, as far as I know, to the local neighborhood associations when someone applies for an alcohol permit,” said agency Director Michael Langley. “It looks like they have a desire to make all alcohol sales a conditional use. From a legal standpoint, I don’t know that they can do that. It would be up to folks to seek relief through the circuit courts on that.”
The other facilities that would require city approval if the ordinance is passed include rooming, lodging and boarding facilities; family-care facilities; group-care facilities; establishments of religious, charitable or philanthropic organizations; community welfare or health centers; establishments for care of alcoholic, narcotic or psychiatric patients; “beverage” shops; stores where beverages make up not more than 10 percent of the floor space; and pawnshops.
Moore said the ordinance language will be clarified before the board meeting Tuesday to specifically include convenience stores that sell beer and wine.

By Claudia Lauer
Front Section, Pages 1 on 02/03/2012
Print Headline: For veterans clinic, hurdle in the works