River access fight set for hearing

Dana Guthrie
Staff Writer

A group of Saline County property owners have submitted a petition asking the county to vacate portions of Mountain View Road and Tony Kelly Road and end public access to the Saline River in that location, but a number of other residents are objecting to the petition.
Also known at the Paul Wright Access, if the road is vacated, the access will be gated on both sides of the river and the general public would lose access to the entrance.

Michael Callahan is one of the land owners seeking the road to be vacated.
“You have a public road surrounded by private landowners,” Callahan said. “You’ve got people coming down that road thinking that it’s public access when it’s not. We, as land owners, have to deal with the public coming down there.”
According to Callahan, he and the other property owners have grave concerns about the area.
“We want a safe, clean river and that place down there, it ain’t safe and it ain’t clean,” Callahan said. “We have tried and tried and spent thousands of dollars trying to keep it clean and make things better. Certain individuals wreck it and make it bad for everybody …there’s condoms and beer cans and baby diapers and dead dogs and poached deer. The fact of the matter is it’s not safe and it’s not clean and as land owners we got together and thought this is our only solution to make it better and get it clean and make it safe for our families.”

On the other side of the issue, business owners such as Michael Sacomani, whom owns Saline River Canoe, fear that the closure of this public access point could damage the business.
In an email to The Saline Courier, Sacomani said, “The Paul Wright Access (also know as Nickel Bill) is in danger of being gated on both sides of the river and consequently all accessibility would be lost to the general public. If you are not familiar with this area it is one of the most scenic sections of the Saline River, it has been an access for decades and where we put in for our 'long float.' If you have ever floated with us you have more than likely put in at Paul Wright Ford as this is our most popular float.”

Callahan said that he understands Sacomani’s concerns.
“I know that this is an emotional issue and I feel their pain,” Callahan said. “My intention is not to keep canoers out. I talked to (Sacomani) yesterday and he is, understandably so, very upset about this. I assured him that our goal is not to keep canoers or people that are his business out. We don’t want to shut him down. That’s not our goal.”

Sacomani is also concerned because the closure will not just affect his business, but that fisherman, canoers, kayakers, birdwatchers, and other outdoor enthusiasts will be affected by the loss of the access point. He also stated his objections as being loss of recreational value and loss of access to one of the most scenic sections of the river.

Local resident Connie Lewis is also concerned about losing the access point.
“It’s an important access for people that want to wade, fish or float,” Lewis said. “It’s an important area for families to go. It’s shallow enough for small children to play safely and it’s a nice place for picnics. When the water levels are low enough, that’s the best place for us to go. It’s the shortest way to go. It takes 10 or 15 miles off of a trip.”
Lewis said that she has lived in the area since 1992 and would frequently bring her family to the river and go swimming and fishing.
“It’s the place where we could go and play,” Lewis said. “Back then, nobody really knew about it.”

Ten local property owners, including Callahan, have joined together to petition the county to vacate the road.

According to Lewis, this is not the first time that property owners have tried to find a way to limit access. Lewis alleged that in November 2017, one local land owner, who Lewis did not name, tried to dig out the road bed to make it inaccessible for people to cross there.
“They also put a berm up there which technically changes the flow of the river which I believe is illegal,” Lewis said. “If you look at the satellite image of the area, you can see the berm that they constructed.”
Lewis contends that the current property owners in favor of the petition are doing this in order to have the access point to themselves.
“I believe that they just want to deny access to people who want to get in the river at their property so that they have their own private access to the river,” Lewis said. "If they shut that down where they are planning to have the gates at, it would literally be their own private access to the river.”

Callahan said that he could not speak for everyone who is in favor as to their reasons for asking for the road to be vacated.
“In my case, that’s not true,” Callahan said. “I want my family to enjoy the land that we bought. I’ve got three kids and I don’t let them go down to that river by themselves. I’ve got a 75-year-old mother that walks her dog and neighbors who walk their dogs and I cringe every time I see them go down there because you don’t know what you’re going to encounter.”

Lewis added that she does understand the concerns about the safety of the access area.
“People do go down there and turn their music up really loud,” Lewis said. “They bring alcohol and they get drunk.”
While acknowledging that there are some safety issues, Lewis said that she does not believe that the crime that does happen in the area is greater than anywhere else.

A public hearing has been scheduled for April 18 at the Saline County Courthouse in order for County Judge Jeff Arey to hear from parties on both sides. The hearing will begin at 10 a.m. and all interested parties are encouraged to attend and have their voices heard.
The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission notified Arey in writing that it visited the sites in questions and do not object to the petition due to the fact that there are “at least four other areas within a 10-mile radius of the above mentioned sires that provide adequate public access to the river”.
The Saline County Sheriff’s Office also notified Arey that it does not have any objection to the closing of the river access at that point.

Callahan said the goal isn’t to take anything away from people who want to use the river, but to keep their property and families safe.
“Most days you don’t encounter anything,” Callahan said. “You encounter some really nice wonderful people, but there’s also some people down there that you don’t want to encounter. Our goal from the get-go is that the people who want access will have access. We just want to eliminate the bad access. We just want our families safe.”