Walnut Ridge Country Club loses court battle with city, airport commission

By Josh Harvison - bio | email

WALNUT RIDGE, AR (KAIT) - Officials with the city of Walnut Ridge told Region 8 News Monday a letter opinion was written by Circuit Judge Harold Erwin, ruling against the Walnut Ridge Country Club. According to the letter, the country club has 30 days to appeal the ruling or return land leased by the city back to its pre-existing condition.

"What we've tried to get across all along is basically try to get the airport in compliance and it speaks volumes for this Airport Commission that they've stood up for that and said, hey we are out of compliance. You know, it was never about trying to do away with the golf course or the country club and I want to say that at this point, I'd still like to see something worked out and resolved with them. No one wants to see them go. They're certainly an asset to this community. No one would argue that point," said Mayor Michelle Rogers.

The Walnut Ridge Regional Airport had designated a runway along several holes as C-3, which includes a larger safety zone than the previous B-2 designation. With the wider safety zone, 7 holes of the 9-hole golf course would have to be destroyed or relocated. According to Terry Ryan with the Walnut Ridge Country Club, the course doesn't have the money or space to relocate a majority of its land.

"In our country club, we're a small town. We have trouble paying our bills right now," said Ryan. "There's not enough land to build it there. You cannot put 10 pounds of potatoes in a 5 pound sack and that's what they're trying to do. There's not enough land left that they have offered to replace the 7 holes."

According to Mayor Rogers, more than $10-million has been invested in the airport over the last 10 years. She also said the country club plays a vital role in the community.

"I've talked with some commissioners and some council members this morning and let them know what has transpired out of this and I think they're willing to sit down and visit with them, but as I said, to say if that's going to happen right now, I don't know, but hopefully we can come to some sort of an agreement with them," said Rogers.

"It's a social center. Their own engineers said that in 2003, closure of the country club would have a severe social impact on the community and told them how we could co-exist, but they're choosing to go a different route," said Ryan.

Mayor Rogers said the greens around the end of one runway have been the focus of discussion. The area needs to be cleared for security purposes, according to Rogers.

"What needs to be cleared is infringing upon the runway safety zone and that's what needs to be cleared out," said Rogers.

The feeling was shock at the country club Monday. Longtime patrons of the club felt disappointed with the ruling.

"Our money is so limited out here that we won't be able to follow through with our own expenses and afford to do it," said Gary Fowler, golfer. "It's really sad because I chose Walnut Ridge to live in and it's probably the nicest place I've ever lived in and I can't believe we're divided now over this issue the way we are."

"Our contention since day one is that we can coexist. We have coexisted for over 40 years and the FAA has known we've been there and we have coexisted and we felt like we could continue to coexist and not hurt the credibility and viability of the airport at all with some minor changes to the golf course and that was the avenue we pursued," said Ryan.

According to patrons of the country club, the facility hosts numerous charity golf tournaments throughout the year. Fowler said he and his wife defeated cancer, and sponsor a golf tournament to raise money for the fight against the disease.

"This past Saturday there was a golf tournament, Shots for Tots, sponsored by the Circle of Friends to raise money for the Children's Hospital," said Ryan.

According to officials with the country club, 140 people have had memberships for at least 6 months. Despite economic hardships, the country club said people still want a place to get away from everyday life.

"We have a numerous amount of retirees that go out there and play golf every day. That's their life. That's what they go for," said Ryan.

"If we accept this and cannot go forward, the country club is bankrupt, we're out of business, we are closed down and it's going to be on their heads because this did not have to happen," said Ryan.

According to officials on both sides of the debate, the community has been torn apart by the decision.

"We filed a suit because they wrote us a letter that said they were going to come over and destroy the course. We had no other option. They had an attorney send us a letter, telling us to vacate or they were going to destroy the course," said Ryan. "The government doesn't come in and take land, even if it belongs to them. We got a legal lease for it, and if they take it, which they can under the Powers of Imminent Domain, then we should have to be compensated for it."

"It was never about trying to be unfair to them, but we were handed down guidelines that it's the Airport Commission's job to put that airport first. It wasn't about the country club not being important," said Rogers.

Mayor Rogers said the airport has been awaiting money from federal grants for the duration of the lawsuit. Now that a decision has been handed down, she hopes the airport can move on.

"We've had projects that have been held up because of this impending lawsuit that we've had. So now we're going to be able to move forward with those," said Rogers. "The military is using it. The C-130's are using it for touch downs. You have other general aviation that's out there, some of the flying services, and I know right now they are currently working on an intermodal facility that's going to be used out there."

"We have 16,000 foot of runway, usable runway out there right now, 2nd largest airport in the state and we're dying, our community is dying," said Ryan. "When you change the designation on a runway, that changes the safety zone. They can change that runway from a C-3 to a B-2, and we can make it work."

The country club has 30 days after the official order is signed by Judge Erwin to either file an appeal or destroy the property in question.

"Based on this letter, if we can't raise the necessary funds to appeal it, which I don't know if we can or we can't, I won't know until I talk to our attorney about what our options are, this is going to devastate the community," said Ryan.

"We were handed down guidelines that the airport had to meet and that's what we've done. That's what we've tried to do, and in a situation like this, obviously, someone is going to walk away unhappy," said Rogers.

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