Fort Smith residents voice concerns over possible medical marijuana dispensary

by Aric Mitchell (aric.mitchell@gmail.com) 1,338 views 

There has been no confirmation or denial from Fort Smith Investment Partners, but some residents in the Riley Farm and Williamson Place additions of Fort Smith are concerned the company is attempting to bring a medical marijuana dispensary to the area.

A Facebook post from Fort Smith attorney Chip Sexton summed up what Fort Smith Development Services Director Wally Bailey called a “lively” discussion of the commercial zoning request at an Aug. 2 neighborhood meeting from the site at 12350 Highway 71 South.

Sexton’s post referred to a letter circulating around the area “that may appear to be from the Fort Smith Planning Commission,” but was not. In the letter, “the opponents of rezoning of property on or adjacent to Old Arkansas Highway 71 for a Marijuana Dispensary are suggesting that traffic problems will occur if the dispensary gets licensed.”

“It is my information that … this letter is not from the Planning Commission but I have not personally seen the letter,” Sexton writes. (Neither had Bailey.) “I also must state that I support the business efforts of the family that has done so much to help the south part of Fort Smith in which some members are seeking the rezoning.”

Sexton commended “the family” for bringing “a great restaurant to our area” as well as “so many other great things.”

“However,” he continued, “I do not support the rezoning request or the request for licensing a Medical Marijuana Dispensary on Old Arkansas Highway 71 in or near Williamson Place or Riley Farms. I do believe that the request for rezoning stands little chance of being granted given that it is so close to a residential neighborhood and that the request for a dispensary license also stands little chance given the number of applications for Sebastian County that will obviously be forthcoming or in the ‘zone’ in which Fort Smith is located pursuant to the zoning designations of the Medical Marijuana Commission.”

Sexton said he believes licensing a marijuana dispensary — or, as Bailey said attendees of the neighborhood meeting referred to them, “weed stores” — on the back side of a residential neighborhood “will significantly increase traffic, crime, and reduce property values.”

Bailey told Talk Business & Politics that Neal Morrison of Morrison Shipley Engineers — the agent for Fort Smith Investment Partners — had neither confirmed nor denied the planned development would be a medical marijuana dispensary at the meeting, and Morrison emphasized as much when he spoke to Talk Business & Politics on Tuesday (Aug. 8). When asked how residents were getting the idea the development request was for a medical marijuana dispensary, Morrison said, “It was a rumor that got started, and I can’t really talk about where the rumor came from.” He also declined to name the principals involved with Fort Smith Investment Partners.

Whether the site request does turn out to be a medical marijuana dispensary will remain conjecture until at least the end of 2017, but Bailey said a “commercial-3” (C-3) zoning distinction would make the property eligible for such a facility. However, it could also be used for another restaurant, liquor store, or any number of commercial developments, Bailey said, noting C-3 is the same zone as the development along Highway 71 that includes Beef O’Brady’s.

The land in question was annexed by Fort Smith in 2005. It is not zoned, so C-3, if approved, would be its first classification. A letter to the city’s zoning department received on Monday (Aug. 7) from Morrison requested the item be tabled from Tuesday night’s agenda. Also, Morrison had previously requested deferral on a development plan for the project. On behalf of Fort Smith Investment Partners, his letter withdrew that request with the intent of coming back to the planning commission with a development plan at a later date. Planning commissioners on Tuesday approved the request.

The development plan could, but would not necessarily, clear up purpose, Bailey said, as it could be “for a speculative building.”

Morrison said there was no chance of resubmitting the request along with site development plan by October, but it was “possible” it could happen by December.

“We’ll have to do a full site development plan to go along with the rezoning application, and as part of the requirements to do the site development plan, we have to also do a traffic study. There’s a lot of work to be done. Architectural work, materials used for the building, and other things. It goes way beyond the site plan.”

If Fort Smith Investment Partners makes the December meeting, they will need the required materials submitted to the city’s planning department by mid-November to allow time for review and public comment. Per terms of the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Amendment passed by voters last Nov. 8, cultivation centers (where the plants are grown) cannot be zoned differently from dispensaries (where they are sold), so either facility type would be welcome in a C-3.

Ultimately, the state will award licenses for five cultivation facilities and 32 dispensaries.

Storm Nolan, Fort Smith-based developer and founder of the Arkansas Cannabis Industry Association (ACIA), has expressed to Talk Business & Politics interest in filing an application for a marijuana cultivation facility in Fort Smith.

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