Fort Smith Board approves land acquisitions, annual Parrot Island meeting date

by Aric Mitchell ([email protected]) 722 views 

The Fort Smith Board of Directors on Tuesday (Sept. 19) approved a request from the city’s utilities department to proceed with the acquisition of properties related to a federal consent decree item, and, if necessary, enter into eminent domain proceedings with property owner holdouts.

The total acquisition amount approved unanimously by city directors was just $38,310.34, but the situation has already proven complicated with Fort Smith Utilities Director Jerry Walters listing two refusals and one counteroffer along with eight “unable to locate owner” properties and two “conversations turned into no response” items out of 22 altogether.

Of the remaining nine, three were listed as “still working,” two as “state tax owed,” two “agreed to sign,” one with an offer signed, and one with an offer scheduled for closing.

The acquisitions are to support capacity improvements for Sub-Basins P002 and P003, which is project number 16-03-ED1 of the estimated $480 million federal consent decree against the city for decades-long violations of the 1973 Clean Water Act. The agreements will also cover sewer utility easements on many of the listed properties. None of the property owners mentioned in Walters’ memo to the Board signed to speak on the issue Tuesday night prior to the Board’s vote.

If the city is forced into an eminent domain situation, it may not be the only time throughout the course of the consent decree, which has a deadline that will mature in 2027. Street and utility departments have the option of using eminent domain laws to acquire property when providing services to a city, but the need to do so can create conflict in two ways.

Former interim Fort Smith Utilities Director Bob Roddy of consulting firm Burns & McDonnell explained to Talk Business & Politics in a September 2016 interview that “we will use appraisers to come up with a value, and people believe the property is of a higher value so there is a negotiation process to hopefully come to some consensus as to what the price should be.” Other groups simply “don’t want a sewer line running through their field,” Roddy added.

At that time, no specific sites had been singled out for acquisition. Since then, the city hired Walters as the new director and, following Roddy’s explanation, his department has been targeting small parcels of land. The largest two values listed on Walters’ memo were $7,700 and $6,000 while 11 of the 22 line items were under $1,000.

Also Tuesday, city directors agreed to Oct. 5 as the date of the next joint meeting with the Sebastian County Quorum Court to review the annual performance of Parrot Island Water Park. The meeting will take place at 6 p.m. from the Ben Geren Park tornado shelter as it has in previous years.

The facility was approved by voters as an $8 million inter-local agreement between the city of Fort Smith and Sebastian County prior to its opening day around Memorial Day 2015. Final costs before construction came to a close were $12 million with both government bodies splitting construction costs that will not be reimbursed from park profits.

Parrot Island is managed by American Resort Management (ARM). At last year’s meeting, company representative Rick Coleman said the park’s second year suffered from a bit of a “sophomore slump” due to more weather days and a higher minimum wage.

Net operating income for the 2016 season finished at $92,571 on $1.222 million in revenues and $1.129 million in expenses. The 2015 inaugural season net income by comparison was $430,137 with revenue of $1.532 million against $1.102 million on the expense side.

The proposed 2016 budget estimated $1.866 million in revenues against $1.566 million in expenses, so actuals came in at $644,000 lower than expected, but ARM was able to slash expenses by $437,000 to keep pace.