The Fort Smith Planning Commission approved a conditional use Tuesday (April 8), removing the final road block in what has been a long and winding road in the city and Sebastian County's attempts to build the $10.9 million Ben Geren Aquatics Center.
The conditional use permit approved by the commission by a vote of 8-0 was necessary, according to Deputy City Administrator Jeff Dingman, due to the commercial zoning of the land on which the aquatics center will sit along Zero Street.
"Well, every property has an underlying zone and there's certain uses that are just outright permitted in the zone, there's certain uses that are permitted by a conditional use permit. I think the underlying zone for this property is C-5, whatever it is," he said. "But a water park is not necessarily a direct permitted use for any zone that we have in town. Certainly, it's allowable for conditional use and that's what the application here is. Any time you put a park, a school or a church or those types of things, their underlying zoning is one thing, but their conditional use allow them to be there."
Senior City Planner Brenda Andrews said a public meeting was held in March regarding the conditional use permit, but no residents attended the meeting. No opposition was presented during the commission meeting Tuesday.
With the conditional use approved for the site, Dingman said the city and county can now move forward with the bid process, a process already underway and will culminate Thursday (April 10) with the public unsealing of bids in the Sebastian County Quorum Courtroom on the second floor of the county courthouse in downtown Fort Smith.
While the bidding process is intended to secure the lowest costs for local governments, Dingman said the city and county were prepared should any bids on various aspects of the project come in at totals higher than expected.
"Each bid package — and there's 30 plus bid packages — each of them is built with a set of alternate deductions. Hopefully if one piece comes in more than we expect, hopefully we can alter it by deductions on its own piece or deductions on other pieces to take some alternate deductions and make it fit within the budget."
Barring any unforeseen circumstances, city and county leaders are still expecting an opening date of Memorial Day 2015, according to Dingman.
"Yes. We're still on schedule for that (Memorial Day 2015). Hopefully we'll get the good bids in this week and contracts awarded here before the end of the month and get them going."
FIANNA HILLS CLUB REACTION
The commission meeting held Tuesday was the first since developer Lance Beaty of Fort Smith-based FSM Redevelopment Partners pulled out of a planned $20 million development that would have revitalized Fianna Hills Country Club.
A planned zoning district Beaty had applied for as part of the project was approved by the Fort Smith Planning Commission by a vote of 9-0, though a vote by the Board of Directors was tabled until a later date due to Beaty's withdrawing from the project.
Commissioner Rett Howard said the fact that Beaty pulled out of the project was "sad," adding that he "would have liked to have seen it happen." Richard Spearman, another member of the commission, said the project would have benefitted the neighborhood and the city, adding that he was surprised at the level of opposition to the project that showed to the city Board meeting the day Beaty pulled out of the project.
"From up here, I thought actually that those…there were more people in favor of the project than against it (when the planning commission voted on the project). And when people got up to speak, some of those who were opposed actually wound up being in favor of it (after having questions answered by Beaty)."
As for what happens next, Commissioner Brandon Cox said he had not heard of any plans for the Fianna PZD, but said it was important that the commission be open to any developer who may want to invest in the country club, which its owners say could close within the next one to three months.
"I mean, you know, all we can do is give the developer the opportunity and whether the business plan plays out or not, we just have to see. I don't know. I don't know other than that."
Howard said he just wants something good for the city and the neighborhood.
"I'm open to what anyone wants to suggest. But I hope it's something good. Anything for growth. Something that the neighbors can agree to and something that can be good, positive growth for our area."
Andrews said she had not heard from anyone associated with Fianna Hills Country Club regarding the PZD. Dingman said he did not have anything new regarding the PZD application, either.
"I haven't heard anything new about it other than it's on the agenda again May 6th."