Fayetteville approves Markham Hill rezoning and Pratt Place expansion

Pratt Place Inn / Courtesy photo

Changes are coming to Markham Hill just west of the University of Arkansas campus in Fayetteville.

City Council members on Tuesday unanimously approved two proposals that clear the way for an expansion of Pratt Place Inn and a multi-phase, conservation-based neighborhood over the next 10 to 20 years.

Specialized Real Estate Group, the local firm that owns Pratt Place and the associated hilltop acreage, asked for a redesign of the Planned Zoning District that encompasses the event center, along with a rezoning of the surrounding land. As part of their requests, the company offered a binding agreement to permanently conserve 44 acres of the property, which includes forest land on the west side of the mountain.

The plan

Seth Mims, president of Specialized, said part of the plan is to revitalize Pratt Place, which serves as a popular wedding venue, but has only seven rooms and one cottage for overnight guests. With so few rooms, no restaurant and no other commercial uses, he said the event center simply isn’t profitable.

An expanded Pratt Place, he said, would include 5,000 square feet of event space and enough new hotel-format buildings and cabins to accommodate an additional 80 guests. Plans call for 12,000 square feet of restaurant and commercial space, and about 43 single-family homes along the eastern portion of the property. The inn, barn, cottage, and a nearby cabin and storage building would remain. The cabin would become an overnight suite and the cottage would become a commercial space. Plans also call for several single-story cabins, a conference and meeting space, a two- or three-story hotel-style building, and smaller structures like an office, guest services center, and some shops. Company officials have said the restaurant and retail spaces would be open to the public.

The current planned zoning district contains 74 acres and the surrounding land is zoned RSF-4 (Residential Single-Family 4 Units Per Acre). Specialized asked to reduce the PZD to 24 acres and rezone 75 acres as RI-U (Residential Intermediate-Urban). The remaining 44 acres will be rezoned to RA (Residential Agricultural) and then permanently preserved either through a conservation easement or a gift to a land trust or municipality.

The areas outside Pratt Place are set to be developed into a neighborhood in phases over the next 10-20 years. Officials have said inspiration for the neighborhood comes in part from Serenbe, a 1,000-acre community built over the past 15 years in Fulton County, Georgia. About 600 people live in the community’s 350 homes set among preserved forests and meadows.

The bill of assurance promises that despite the change from RSF-4, the overall density for the rezoned property will remain at four units per acre, or 476 units. Mims said with smaller lots, the neighborhood would have the same density as what’s allowed today, but retain more green space.

The binding agreement also commits Specialized to keep at least 50 percent of the total RI-U and RA acreage as passive and active open space. That includes the preserved conservation area, but also adds landscaping, gardens, pocket parks, meadows, watersheds, outdoor plazas and existing or new walking or multi-use trails throughout the neighborhood.

Public discussion

Discussion of the two items lasted nearly four hours on Tuesday. It was the second reading of the ordinances, which first landed at the council level on Sept. 18.

Mims told the council that Specialized began the first of several official neighborhood meetings in April to gather input from residents about the project. He said placing extremely oversized lots to the east of Pratt Place along Markham Road was a direct result of those meetings since many neighbors said they didn’t want to see small homes on small lots along Markham. He said the lots north of Markham are 100 yards deep, and the lots on the south side are 50 yards deep.

Mims said he wanted to remind the council that currently by right, a developer could build 257 homes just on the west side of the mountain and across the area where his company plans to conserve 44 acres of natural land. By approving his plan, he said the city could permanently preserve a large area of land that otherwise could be built upon.

Mims also said he’s committed to giving the city enough right-of-way to build a public trail through the property.

The first resident to speak during public comment said he believes in infill, but he thinks the traffic would be too high on Markham Road if the hill is developed as proposed.

Many residents who spoke against the project also cited potential traffic concerns as a reason why the rezoning should be rejected. Others said a development on the hill could bring unwanted noise or stormwater runoff.

One woman said she’s collected over 2,700 signatures from people who are against the proposal, and another person said he didn’t think the Markham family would want a neighborhood built on the hill.

Several people who spoke said they were either in favor of the rezoning, or they hadn’t yet come to a definitive decision.

One man said the proposed neighborhood is exactly the kind of place he’d like to live in Fayetteville. Another said the plan isn’t perfect, but it has some positives. A few people said they’re sad to see development on the hill, but added that this might be the best proposal the city will ever see for the land.

Sarah Lewis, a former Ward 4 City Council member, suggested tabling the issue to consider a possible master plan for Markham Hill. She said the decision of what will become of Markham Hill is too big to leave up to just one rezoning request.

Steve Clark, president of the Fayetteville Chamber of Commerce, spoke in favor of Specialized’s plans. He said change is inevitable, and the council must manage that change to the best of their ability by taking the advice of planning experts and the city’s Development Services division, who are in favor of the request. He said the city should embrace the proposal.

In all, about 20 people spoke against the proposal and 11 spoke in favor or weren’t definitively opposed.

Council decision

After public comment closed, council member Adella Gray moved to send the item to the third and final reading. John La Tour seconded the motion, and it passed 7-1 with Kyle Smith voting against.

Gray said it is a hard decision because change is painful, but the city is lucky to have a developer who has not taken any shortcuts with their plan, and who wants to create something special. She said she’s excited about Fayetteville having a possible new model for neighborhood planning, and said she’ll be proud to vote in support.

Council member Matthew Petty said he would vote in favor of the request. He said he thinks some of the traffic concerns and neighborhood predictions about expected traffic counts are overblown. He said the proposal reminds him of Mount Sequoyah, which includes a five-story hotel-style unit, cottages, and preserved forest land on the back side. He said Mount Sequoyah wasn’t ruined when the hill was developed, and is still considered to be one of the city’s most attractive and desired places to be.

“I don’t think it will be bad,” said Petty of Specialized’s plan. “I think it will be quite good.”

However, Petty said regardless of whether the neighborhood project or expanded Pratt Place is a success, he is in support of the proposal because of Specialized’s offer to permanently preserve the 44 acres on the west side.

Council member Sarah Marsh said what is possible with the current zoning district is “far worse” for the environment than what is being proposed with Specialized’s project. She said the city should take the opportunity to increase density in the middle of town while also preserving a large swath of land.

“I’m looking forward to a beautiful development,” said Marsh.

Smith said this is one of the hardest decisions to come up since he joined the council last year. He said he would like Markham Hill to stay undeveloped, but said growth is a challenge and he’s unsure where the balance is between preservation and managing a growing population. He said thinking about what could be developed on the west side of the mountain under the current zoning turns his stomach sour.

Council member Sarah Bunch said as someone who grew up in Fayetteville, she has fond memories of Markham Hill. She said she’d also love to see things stay the way she remembers them, but she knows that’s not possible. She said her sentimental hesitations are outweighed by what she thinks is possible with this proposal. She said the only guaranteed way to preserve any part of the hill is to take Specialized’s offer and ensure that housing remains on the top of the hill and not on the side leading down to the west.

La Tour was the last to speak and said he’s conflicted because he would like to support his Ward 4 constituents who are opposed to the plan, but he doesn’t agree with the neighbors who say the proposed rezoning isn’t compatible with the surrounding area. He said the word is out that Fayetteville is a great place to live, and people are moving here at a high rate. He said the city needs to prepare for growth and the proposal would satisfy the need for more homes while also preserving trees and natural areas that make the city so attractive.

“I realize this is a political issue that is going to cost me some votes (in November), but I have to do what I think is best for this city,” said La Tour.

Rezoning map

Conceptual open space plan

C-PZD conceptual plan