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City Council votes to delay decision on 'habitat-rich' land near Arnold Elementary
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City Council votes to delay decision on 'habitat-rich' land near Arnold Elementary

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Nine-Mile Prairie, 7.6

Nine-Mile Prairie environs sit at the edge of Williams Branch Library at Arnold Elementary School in Air Park. Environmental advocates want to make sure that a blight designation doesn't open the area to extensive development.

Environmental advocates who oppose a blight designation they say will lead to development of about 20 acres of prairie in Air Park that should be protected have a couple more months to make their case to the City Council.

Councilwoman Tammy Ward made a motion Monday to postpone the vote until Sept. 20 to give both sides -- those who want to designate the land as extremely blighted to pave the way for affordable housing and those who say the land’s rich and diverse habitat is part of the Nine-Mile Prairie ecosystem and should not be developed -- time to regroup.

“It has been a fast two weeks since we last spoke about this issue and we haven’t made a lot of progress,” Ward said. “It will take some more compromise and some more give and take than this council has seen. ... To rush anything today would be a disservice to this body.”

Environmental advocates oppose development of Air Park land it says should be preserved

The land — about a half-mile from the tallgrass of Nine-Mile Prairie — is a small part of a larger area city officials want to designate as extremely blighted, an effort designed primarily to give qualifying low-income homeowners the opportunity to apply for tax credits made possible by a 2019 change in state law.

Several speakers who support protecting the land suggested Monday that the council approve the blight designation for the land already developed -- from West Holdrege to south of Arnold Elementary. That would allow homeowners to apply for the tax credits and give the council more time to debate 20 undeveloped acres.

“Take one more deep breath and say, ‘what’s the harm in continuing to look at this?’” said W. Don Nelson, who supports protecting the land. “As I watch all the emails flying back and forth over the last two weeks, the one thing I'm struck with is every day I learn something new about what’s going on.”

Proposed blighted area in Air Park

Environmental advocates argue a master plan for the area completed in 2020 by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Center for Grassland Studies recommends protecting the land. They also argue developing it goes against the mayor’s recently adopted Climate Action Plan.

City officials say the extreme blight designation will actually provide more protection by adding layers of scrutiny to any development projects that might come forward.

Waiting until Sept. 20 will allow the issue to be discussed as part of a proposed update to the city's comprehensive plan.

Councilwoman Jane Raybould voted for the delay, but made it clear that she wasn’t convinced that declaring the area as extremely blighted would eliminate the ability of the city to protect Nine-Mile Prairie and also create more affordable housing.

“We are not digging up Nine-Mile Prairie,” she said. “We are going to protect Nine-Mile Prairie."

Complicating the issue is ownership of the land and a 14-year-old agreement between the city, Lincoln Public Schools and the Lincoln Airport Authority created when the new Arnold Elementary was built.

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The city holds title to the land but in 1959 transferred possession and control to the Lincoln Airport Authority. In the 2007 agreement to sell land to LPS, the city agreed to zone the 20 acres at issue now as residential and accommodate the sale of the land when the Airport Authority wanted to do so.

In 2007, when the agreement was signed, the news wasn’t filled with stories about extreme weather and other effects of climate change that are now happening, Marilyn McNabb, vice president of the Wachiska Audubon Society board, told the council Monday.

The 2007 agreement was about children and those who care about them, she said.

“We all want the kids to be all right, so we’d better consider the Climate Action Plan,” she said.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7226 or mreist@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSreist

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Local government reporter

Margaret Reist is a Lincoln native, the mom of three high school graduates now navigating college and an education junkie who covers students, teachers and policymakers inside and outside the K-12 classroom.

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