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GENTRY -- The city council on Jan. 4 approved the purchase of property located at 104 N. Collins and passed on its first reading an ordinance changing the zoning of a parcel on Parks Circle, immediately east of a parcel on Arkansas Highway 59, or Gentry Blvd., owned by Cam and Jane Klassen, from R-1 residential to C-2 commercial.

In a meeting with council members attending virtually, the council discussed the benefits of purchasing a property just north of the city council chambers, located at 104 N. Collins Ave., and ultimately authorized the mayor to proceed with purchasing the property for a price not to exceed $75,000.

Councilmember Janice Arnold was the only council member opposing the purchase and suggested that the city should look at properties near the police station on Arkansas Highway 12 for a future city administration building rather than putting up a building on Main Street.

According to Gentry Mayor Kevin Johnston, the current structure, a church building, might be able to be used as a temporary structure to house city meetings and the Western Benton County District Court while another building is erected, but he also said a city administration and court building would likely be too far in the future to make using the church building a viable option. Johnston suggested that the long-term use of the property would likely involve demolition of the church building and using the lot for city parking, needed for meetings and court days.

After a brief discussion regarding a zoning change for a parcel located along Parks Circle adjacent to a Highway 59 property owned by Cam and Jane Klassen, and with assurances that the lot line between the two properties would be dissolved and access would only be from the highway and not from Parks Circle, the council voted to adopt on its first reading an ordinance changing the zoning of that property from R-1 single-family residential to C-2 commercial. Janice Arnold, a resident of Parks Circle and representing citizens of the street, along with Jason Barrett, voted against the ordinance.

The rezoning ordinance, to take effect, requires two more readings by the council and is expected to be brought back to the council at its February meeting.

The ordinance was proposed, at the recommendation of the city's planning commission. The change was requested by Cam and Jane Klassen to allow them to reconstruct an old barn on the property and use it as an annex to the antique shop.

Councilmember Janice Arnold and other residents of Parks Circle voiced their objections to the change at both the Gentry Planning and Zoning Commission meeting in November and the Gentry Cty Council meeting in December because they do not wish to have commercial property encroaching into their residential neighborhood.

Mike Parks, chairman of the planning commission, explained that the commission has always recommended allowing commercial zoning to extend 300 feet on each side of Arkansas Highway 59. He said this change does not even extend as far off the highway as the adjacent restaurant property and, if lot lines are dissolved, access would be off of the highway and not off Parks Circle. Parks said the city needs to make room for commercial properties if it is going to continue to grow and thrive.

The council was divided evenly on the rezoning ordinance in December and, since it could neither accept nor reject the proposed ordinance, ultimately voted to table the ordinance and return it to the planning and zoning commission to see if there are any other options that may allow the Klassens to proceed with plans but provide protections to residential property owners on Parks Circle.

The planning and zoning commission, at its November meeting, approved the rezoning request of the Klassens and again, at its December meeting, sent the measure back to the council recommending that it be passed

According to information shared at the commission's meeting, the requested change of the property zoned for single-family residential to C-2 commercial would allow the Klassens to move an old barn from south of Gentry to the location to be rebuilt and used in conjunction with an antique shop (for storage and as an annex) to the former flower shop building.

Janice Arnold, a resident of Parks Circle and a member of the city council, spoke on behalf of Parks Circle residents in opposition to the zoning change, saying she hated to see commercial property encroaching into their residential neighborhood because of possible issues with strangers parking in the neighborhood and also allowing their pets to relieve themselves on neighborhood lawns. She submitted a petition with more than 30 signatures opposing the rezoning.

At the January council meeting, councilmembers Michael Crawford and Jimmy Thorburn said the council should lean on the expertise of the planning and zoning commission and go with its recommendation. Councilmember Jason Williams said expanding the commercial zoning would lead to additional tax revenue for the city.

In other action, the council approved the reappointment of James Kooistra, Wanda Meyer and Mike Parks to another term on the Gentry Planning Commission. Their terms will expire in 2026.

The council discussed formats for future meetings and expressed a desire to resume holding committee meetings, but via videoconferencing, during the covid-19 pandemic.

Mayor Johnston updated the council on the parks master plan, saying 100 percent drawings for a sports complex had been prepared and the city would likely put the plans out for bid with deductive alternates included so that it could begin to move forward with construction as it is affordable. He said the grading work for the ball fields would be one of the first parts of the project to be completed.

Johnston said the city was finishing up the details for the construction of a splash pad in the city park on Main Street and he anticipated the project would be complete in time for the facility to open this summer.

He announced that the city was working on plans for more tree planting in the city, including the use of an irrigation system to water the new trees. The tree project is connected to the grants of the Walton Family Foundation.

Johnston said the city had closed on the purchase of 2 acres of property to be the location of a new water storage facility near Y-City Road. The water storage facility will add to water storage capacity for the eastern portion of the city's water system.

Johnston also reported progress on the cleaning up of nuisance properties at 317 S. Collins and 119 N. Nelson avenues and the lack of progress at 117 N. Smith Ave. Johnston did say the Smith property may be changing hands, which could speed up the process.

Also reported by Johnston was a change in the recycling program with cardboard being taken to a Rogers location, saving the city time and money. He said a part-time position might need to be added in February to pull the trailer to Rogers for unloading.

Janie Parks, executive director of the Gentry Chamber of Commerce and the Gentry United Way, updated the council on the success of the Neighbor to Neighbor program, saying the program had served more than 200 Gentry residents, by paying past-due water bills and preventing shutoff over the holiday season. She said the program was largely made possible by donations from McKee Foods Corp., and numerous other individuals and businesses in Gentry. She also said $3,000 was used to purchase children's clothing for the new children's advocacy center in the city.

Parks said planning is underway for the next Freedom Festival, to be held on July 3 this year since July 4 falls on a Sunday. She said the quilt show had been canceled and the Easter Egg hunt was questionable due to the covid-19 pandemic.

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