JESSIEVILLE, Ark. (AP) - Federal lawmakers have approved the Walnut Grove Land Exchange Act this week, which authorized a land swap between the U.S. Forest Service and Walnut Grove Community Church in Garland County.
The Sentinel-Record reported that the bill was sent to President Donald J. Trump for his signature. The House overwhelmingly passed the bill in September, but it stalled in Senate during the final days of the session. Supporters said Sen. John Boozman, a Republican from Rogers, helped the bill finally gain traction.
The congregation’s place of worship has sat on federal property since 1938, according to the Arkansas Democrat Gazette . It offered to trade roughly six acres along the Ouachita National Forest for a 4-acre plot, where it worships and buries the deceased. Since 2002, the church has been required to obtain a special-use permit every year to continue worshipping at the site.
If the government’s 4-acre tract is more valuable than the 6-acre tract, then the congregation will have to pay an “equalization payment.” If the church-owned land is more valuable, there will be no payment.
Supporters said the change will help the congregation use the land, free from fears of federal restrictions or eviction. The congregation had been seeking a land swap for more than a quarter century, according to Trey Bassett - one of the church’s deacons. News of the legislation’s passage spread fast on social media, he added.
“Everyone’s all excited,” said Bassett. “It’s kind of a Christmas gift, I guess, for our congregation.”
Sen. Boozman said that once the land swap happens “the church can go ahead and do the things that it’s so good at doing and focus on its mission.” He added, “they don’t have this burden on them anymore.”
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