Fort Smith Board uncertain on vote for Fianna Hills Country Club

story by Ryan Saylor

A unanimous vote by the Fort Smith Planning Commission to approve the planned zoning district (PZD) at the site of the Fianna Hills Country Club does not guarantee a similar vote at the April 1 meeting of the Fort Smith Board of Directors – the last hurdle to jump in order to get the planned redevelopment of the country club off the ground.

The 9-0 planning commission vote was unusual on projects such as the Fianna Hills PZD, which saw a room divided almost evenly among those in favor and those opposed to the project.

Commissioner Vicki Newton said her vote in favor of the PZD all came down to extending the life of the country club, which will see a planned $20 million upgrade by Fort Smith-based FSM Redevelopment Partners should the PZD receive final Board approval.

"I think we’ve all heard the rumors that have circulated for months now regarding Fianna," she wrote in an e-mail. "I do know that the club has basically outlived it’s economic life as such. Something has to be done as I know the owners are pumping their own money into it. Now, that aside, strictly from a planning commission standpoint, it meets all the requirements for a PZD, which allows the developers to expedite their plan and yet be very specific. I was curious to hear what the neighbors had to say as I know there was some opposition. And all of that was more or less self serving, i.e. ‘my house, my view’ not what would be detrimental to the whole neighborhood. After hearing and reading the plan that was developed, I firmly believe this is a viable option and needs to be explored. I think there are many other obstacles ahead for this development team, but to not look to the future for Fort Smith and the needs of the city would be a failure on our part."

Brandon Cox, another commissioner who voted in favor of the PZD, said he voted for the development because he did not want to "be the commissioner to stop a multi-million dollar project that improves the same intended use," adding that restrictions were included in the PZD to create the best possible outcome for developers and the neighborhood.

"The additional restriction provided from the planning commission study session imposed maximum traffic counts for future uses that can’t exceed 5% over the approved PZD traffic counts," Cox wrote. "As well, limiting the parking available to the number of spaces presented in the PZD will in turn limit the density of any future use. My final decision to support the PZD was based on three primary factors:
· The contingent assurances described above and provided within the PZD should protect the residents;
· A high quality and innovative development with a large investment in FS that appeared to meet the UDO requirements;
· The neighborhood was clearly split on the development of the project with just as many supporting as opposing."

All Fort Smith City Directors were asked via e-mail whether they would vote for or against the project and why, whether they had concerns about the project, and whether there were any circumstances which could cause them to change their mind. Following are their responses:

"I haven't received the board package on this item and would like to reserve official comment until I have had time to review. My first blush position is I support the development. It is a planned $8.0 mil dollar development, creates jobs, increases property values, recommended by the city planning staff, was unanimously approved  9-0 by the planning commission and its business friendly. … There would have to be a huge compelling reason not to vote in favor of the PZD. I will have my official position Sunday (March 30) after review of the package."

"I will tell you that we, board members have been getting email responses and request about the FHCC project and the (PZD). I personally like the idea, but need to educate myself on some of the particulars like 'factor C' that the emails reference and familiarize myself with the zone change will allow."

"I have not made a decision on this vote at this time. I have heard many citizen concerns about this project and likely will hear more in the coming days. Making the best decision for all citizens will take research and listening to citizen comments in the coming days. My only concern is to protect the property values and citizens best interest in the Fianna area and all of Fort Smith. I am supportive of a revitalized Fianna Hills Country Club but have concerns with the other uses allowed in the PZD as presented."

"I am leaning toward approval of the (PZD) and to this project. (M)y understanding (is) it will create more jobs and also a better tax base for the city with the planned improvements. I really have no concerns about the project as proposed."

"I have received numerous phone calls and emails on the subject of the rezoning of Fianna Hills County Club. I have not made a decision on how I will vote at this point – I am still researching the question. I have several questions that I will be seeking answers to on Monday (March 17). Please understand that this zoning request will have long term impacts on the Fianna Hills neighborhood and that I take any vote I make on this issue with lots of thought considering the current impact and the impact of the rezoning in twenty years."

"I have heard from many citizens about the proposed PZD at the Fianna Hills Country Club. What most citizens want is that longevity of the FHCC to stay open, which I agree with. For the most part, I am would agree that the FHCC upgrades and members suites would be great addition to the FSM area.

"The concerns that have been brought to my attention by many citizens in the Fianna Hills area are the other potential developments that are being asked in the PZD. These other potential developments are something that I am going to research and get a better understanding on how they could affect the existing homeowner property values.

"We will not receive our final BOD packet for this subject until March 28 for our April 1st meeting, which this subject will be on the agenda."

"Please know that I am continuing to gather input from multiple venues and certainly from those in the FHCC area.
"I have gotten viewpoints from multiple sides on this PZD. Support for the decision has been received. Support to oppose has been received. And this a.m. (March 14), I received citizen input to approve the improvements to the country club setting and 'member suites' portion of the PZD but to vote 'no' on the other items that would fit in such a zone change (office setting, medical facilities, etc).
"I am deliberating and listening and taking notes, rest assured. I support the club and member suites concept and as for other zoning potential uses with this change, I am continuing to listen and learn on the subject."