Trees and new sex rules focus of Fort Smith Board votes

by The City Wire staff ( 7 views 

The Fort Smith Board of Directors took a tongue-lashing from one of its citizens, extended allowable land use for sexually oriented businesses and settled the Barlee II Properties litigation Tuesday night (Nov. 20).

At the end of the meeting, a last-minute agenda item — added at the request of Director Pam Weber with approval from Directors George Catsavis, Philip Merry and Steve Tyler— was to follow-up on the fracas regarding downtown streetscaping that launched at the Nov. 15 budget meeting.

Landscaper Frank Sharum took issue with how he was presented during the budget meeting when Weber asked city directors to consider repayment for “about $26,000 in trees,” according to Weber, that Sharum had purchased on the $2.5 million streetscaping project from 9th to 13th Streets.

During the budget meeting, Director Kevin Settle chastised the subject as “inappropriate” and told Weber “He (Sharum) shouldn't meet with you. He should meet with the general (contractor) and the city administration, not a director. A director should not be in the middle of this.”

Director Merry then remarked that Sharum didn't have “a pleasant experience in dealing with the city.”

“Wait a minute. Wait a minute. Wait a minute,” Gosack said. “I’m not going to stand for that. We had a contract with the contractor (Forsgren, Inc). It was for a specific project with a specific area, and the sub-contractor (Sharum) to the general contractor went out and bought more material that he thought he could use in other areas beyond that project area using that federal money that is designated for the specific area. So there's no difficulty doing business with the city.”

Tuesday night Sharum addressed the board.

“We’ve got people trying to do things for this town, and you make it so difficult to do anything and then make petty remarks about people,” Sharum said. “Do you wonder why that every day thousands of people are leaving to go up north, and there’s no new businesses coming here? I mean, this is a community.”

Sharum continued: “Before you make a statement, get the facts right. Don’t attack a guy and say that he’s a poor businessman and you’ve got to buy out — I never asked anybody to buy the extra trees. I sent the trees to a casino in Joplin, Missouri. I was trying to help the city, and that’s the problem, guys. You’ve got to figure it out because you’re going to wake up and you’re going to be the El Dorado of Arkansas one of these days.”

Weber confirmed Tuesday that Sharum had never asked for repayment, which she did not do at the budget meeting, stating that she “felt like it was the right thing to do at the budget meeting to ask if we had any funds to put toward this project.”

“Maybe I didn’t ask in the right way,” Weber said. “Frank did not know that I was asking. This was something that I felt was the right thing to do. In my family you do the right thing. I apologize about the reaction and the press. It’s become a much bigger issue than it should have been. I just made an effort to correct a perceived wrong. I feel like this is unfortunate for the city because we won’t be able to finish what we’ve done, and Frank, you’ve done wonderful with what you have done.”

Tyler added: “The saddest thing that I get from this is that someone was willing to give their talent and direction, and it was not brought to the board to make this happen.”

Asked for his reaction to Sharum’s comments, Gosack said he thought “the statements speak for themselves.”

“I don’t think it’s good the way a hard-working business person has been maligned through this process, but it was all based on misinformation,” Gosack said.

When asked where the misinformation came from, Gosack only said, “The record speaks for itself. We have a record of what was said at Thursday night’s board meeting. We have a record of what Mr. Sharum has said. So people can compare those two records and decide for themselves the source of the misinformation.”

Gosack admitted to meeting with Weber, Sharum and Mike Alsup, director of the parks department, “in the spring,” but said “there was nothing I could bring to the board of directors because there was no plan presented.

“They talked in general terms about downtown streetscaping and appearance, but they had no specific plans. Just a lot of ideas, and the board needs something more concrete to look at,” he said.

Between the spring meeting and “a week before the (Nov. 15) budget meeting,” Sharum had purchased the materials. It was at that time, according to Gosack, that Weber approached him to see if there was anything the city could do for repayment. Gosack “had (Deputy City Administrator) Jeff Dingman look in to it, and there wasn’t,” because the funds for the project were from a federal grant (administered by the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department), Gosack said.

Gosack said he told Weber of the funding dilemma prior to the budget meeting during which Weber brought the matter before the board while discussing budget items for the downtown Fort Smith area.

The other top agenda items centered on sexually oriented businesses and the resolution of a pending litigation between the city and Barlee II Properties.

The board received an alternative proposal from the city’s development services department that would establish allowances for sexually oriented businesses in commercial heavy (C-5), industrial moderate (I-2) and industrial heavy (I-3) zoning districts at the Nov. 13 study session.

In May the board agreed by a 5-2 vote to set allowable land usage at 1.4% — well below the 5% minimum that courts have found acceptable, according to City Attorney Jerry Canfield — in spite of having lost an $800,000 lawsuit in the 1990’s for impeding such establishments’ abilities to operate within city limits. The past litigation was instigated by Regina’s House of Dolls, a now-defunct sexually oriented business.

With the new rezoning distinctions, the plan presented Tuesday would move allowable land usage to 4%, still under the minimum limit but for Wally Bailey, director of development services for the city of Fort Smith, “it’s a move that we feel more comfortable with.” The board voted 6-1 to approve with Director Don Hutchings, pastor at Evangel Temple, the only holdout.

The board also approved a resolution to settle pending litigation with Barlee II Properties over Koller Place Subdivision Lots 10, 11 and 12 — entries in the HOME Funds Loan Program for affordable housing.

According to the terms of the loan, Barlee agreed to a 10-year loan interest payment at 1% per year with a balloon payment at the end for the $150,000 principal amount.

The funds were used to build three Housing and Urban Development (HUD)-approved homes in the 23-unit Koller Place Subdivision.

The board-approved settlement, which passed by vote of 5-2 (Directors Weber and Catsavis dissenting), will extend below-market rental rates from the original 15 years to 20. This would prevent the city from having “to repay HUD the $150,000 loaned for the project,” according to Gosack.

Additionally, Barlee has agreed to pay the city $37,500 in cash.

“These funds would go back into the city’s HOME program, which would increase the resources available for HOME-eligible projects,” Gosack said.