‘Hippotherapy’ facility now uncertain after FCRA real estate committee balks on land deal

by Aric Mitchell ([email protected]) 794 views 

After a disappointing meeting with the Fort Chaffee Redevelopment Authority’s Real Estate Review Committee on Thursday (March 8), private developer Cliff Cabaness said all was not lost on his plan to purchase 310 acres from the FCRA trust.

Cabaness said, “It appears that everything is not quite settled, and we have an opportunity to make it a win-win-win all the way around. We will know after the Board meeting next Thursday (March 15).”

Cabaness has tried to purchase the large tract of land located in Barling for “more than a year and a half,” he told Talk Business & Politics after the meeting. On Thursday, a possible deal appeared to be dead in the water following the committee’s decision to let a motion for acceptance die for lack of a second. Cabaness even said publicly he was “through negotiating.” Explaining his decision in an interview immediately following the meeting, he said there had been “five other meetings where they asked me to make changes and modify my intent and continue to change and change and change with the understanding that we were coming to an agreement.”

“It’s been kind of like sticking a fork in Jell-O,” he added.

The last public meeting during which Cabaness appeared was in June 2017. At that time, he shared plans with the FCRA Board to provide Russellville, Ark.-based Equestrian Zone with 33 acres of the land. The organization is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that provides therapeutic riding and hippotherapy to children and adults with a wide range of physical, cognitive, mental, and emotional disabilities.

Cabaness also hopes to clean up debris and waste in the area and install pavilions, hiking trails, riding clubs, and parks and recreational activities while getting the land on the city of Barling’s tax rolls.

Approximately 268 of the 310 acres is part of land FCRA Executive Director Ivy Owen has described as “unmarketable wetlands.” Owen estimates 846 acres of wetlands altogether out of the trust’s remaining 2,547, so selling to Cabaness would effectively bring down that number to 602 acres.

The wetlands Cabaness is eyeing exist in an Army Corps of Engineers “flowage easement,” which is privately-owned land where the United States government has acquired certain perpetual rights, including the right to prohibit construction or maintenance of any structure meant for human habitation. A landowner of flowage easement land can mow, clear, and plant vegetation. They also can construct wire fencing to or along the government boundary line and sell or lease land to others, subject to the same restrictions.

The landowner may not build permanent or temporary residences or any structure or appurtenances to existing structures without prior written approval of the district engineer.

Pat Mickle of the engineering firm Mickle Wagner Coleman estimated the land would cost at least $20,000 an acre to develop for industrial use (a $6.2 million investment, extrapolated). In June of 2017, the Barling Board of Directors voted unanimously to give FCRA its approval to sell the land to Cabaness.

Owen said he was “neutral” prior to Mickle’s report, but as of Thursday would approve of the sale. As it stands, Cabaness’ offer is for $202,800, including $600 an acre for the flowage easement and wetlands property (268 acres) and $1,000 an acre for the remainder. The offer and terms could change prior to next Thursday’s meeting.