Fort Smith Board nixes Lau duplex plan after 10 concessions, two planning commission approvals

by Aric Mitchell ( 1,337 views 

Fort Smith Ward 1 Director and real estate developer Keith Lau survived two reviews by the city’s planning commission only to be shot down during Tuesday’s (Aug. 7) board meeting by his own Board members on a planned duplex development.

The duplexes had been planned for 1001, 1011, and 1021 N. 49th St. Lau later addressed his fellow Board members directly at the town hall meeting following the Board’s 4-2 vote to confirm a group of neighborhood residents’ second appeal.

The two votes against the appeal were Directors Mike Lorenz and George Catsavis, though Catsavis later told Talk Business & Politics there had been some confusion, and he was under the understanding he was voting against the first option that would have allowed Lau’s development to go through. Catsavis said he could understand why Lau was upset, but the intent of his vote hinged on whether he would want the duplex development in his neighborhood.

“No, I wouldn’t,” he said.

Director Andre Good expressed some apprehension before the vote, telling the Board he didn’t want to make a decision based on “what-if’s.” He later told Talk Business & Politics he was deeply conflicted and concerned about the citizens of Fort Smith’s north side “again falling through the cracks” when it came to having their concerns heard by the Board of Directors. Good felt it was a hard decision to feel good about either way.

“It should have passed,” Good reflected on his vote to affirm the appeal. “The planning commission did what we asked them to. They (Lau’s company) altered some things that needed to be addressed, and it should have been a done deal.”

The Board vote seemed to hinge on a contradiction of the city’s Unified Development Ordinance (UDO) in regard to the definition of “duplex.” As it is defined in the “low-to-medium density” single-family residential neighborhood where Lau wanted to build, the project met the criteria. But in the extraterritorial jurisdictions (ETJs) outside of Fort Smith city limits but still subject to regulation by the city, it would not have.

The contradiction led Lorenz to share his own concerns over the Board’s decision to affirm the appeal.

“I’m concerned about a developer checking all the boxes and getting to the end, and hearing, ‘No, we don’t like what that box says.’ It inhibits the development. This is not a bad development. It’s heavily commercial on the Grand (Avenue) side, and it’s on the edge of the neighborhood, not in the middle of one,” Lorenz said.

Lau held two neighborhood meetings — one before and one after the planning commission’s initial acceptance. In those meetings, he made 10 concessions specifically brought up by neighborhood residents, who still showed up in force to oppose the amended plan Tuesday night. Lau had invested around $15,000 in the planning, design, and adjustments. After the meeting, he took the floor as a citizen and property owner rather than a Board member.

“I just want to say how disappointed I am tonight at the officials who represent me. Tonight I was truly disturbed,” Lau said, noting the project he had planned “was a betterment in my opinion.”

“In my heart of hearts, this was not just about making money. This was about offering a quality of place to students who want to go to the University of Arkansas (at Fort Smith). My daughter went to the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. She was in this very same concept. It worked great. It provided a higher quality of housing versus campus housing. It was private. It wasn’t under the guise of the administration. It was a development that was going to offer covered parking not subject to the fees by the university. It was going to offer quality, safety, and affordability, and a good place for my daughters to live. And basically, you guys disregarded every rule that we had. It was voted twice — not once but twice — by the planning commission. It conformed to all the current regulations and ordinances, and it was an attractive plan.”

Lau said the development would have included high-quality finishes, stainless steel appliances, vinyl plank flooring, and continuous hot water.

He continued: “We were going to offer Wi-Fi. We were going to offer cable. We were going to offer all these things that were going to make this a cut above. It was about a $1.6 million investment to the city of Fort Smith. And let me remind you that Grand Avenue was to the south. That there’s a pawn shop that’s closed down to the west along with a pool hall, billiards. There’s a Sonic across the street. And on 49th, I was just three houses in. And we met with the subdivision or the owners out there twice. We made 10 concessions. I went back and got a traffic impact study that basically was ignored, and a professional with a PE stamp — professional engineering stamp — that said, ‘This is not going to affect this neighborhood.’ And then we offered to put up a No Parking sign. We offered to put in a reduced-fee property manager in there. We addressed everything they had. They just didn’t like the project.”

Lau said the vote had further-reaching implications for any developer interested in the city, asking the question of Board members, “what are we saying to the development community that’s out there? If I want to invest my money in the city of Fort Smith, let’s say I’m $15,000 into this as far as costs, and I’ve dotted all my i’s and crossed all my t’s, I did everything I was supposed to. We even had a total graphical survey done. We were going to have an engineering drainage study done, which is over and above the UDO. So I did everything and then still got turned down. What does that say to the developers who are wanting to put money in the city of Fort Smith? Well, to me, it says, one, you’re not protecting my property rights … and I have property rights, too, as the owner of that property. It’s zoned according to duplex. I can put that in according to your UDO, and you turned me down. So are you protecting my property rights? I don’t think so.”

Lau also addressed what he felt were baseless claims the development would have negatively affected property values, asking, “According to what? Where is that proof coming in that there is a ding to the property value? Where was an appraiser’s letter of opinion that says they extrapolated out of the market that that’s going to affect property values, and the property values are going to go down? Well, it wasn’t there. That’s the answer. But I can tell you for sure now that I can’t put the project on it that I want to put on there, I can go get any appraiser in Fort Smith, and they would say that my value is lower today after this vote than it was coming into this.”

Lau concluded: “So I just want to appeal to you guys. We’ve got — not we — you guys as elected officials have to stand up and protect and adhere and honor the rules that you have in place. Otherwise, people are not going to put their money here. And that’s all I’ve got to say.”