Fort Smith Director criticized over potential conflict of interest votes

by Tina Alvey Dale (tdale@talkbusiness.net) 1,913 views 

Fort Smith City Director Robyn Dawson refutes any suggestion she has acted with a conflict of interest while serving on the Fort Smith Board of Directors. Fort Smith Attorney Nathan Mendenhall has presented two instances of voting he believes are conflicts of interest on Dawson’s behalf.

Mendenhall, who spoke Tuesday (Nov. 5) to the board following the regular meeting, said that at the Sept. 3 regular meeting of the board of directors, Dawson voted for an issue that impacts her employer, Fort Smith Public Schools. Dawson is the principal at Spradling Elementary School. The resolution referenced was one regarding a conditional use for the building of new education facilities at Northside High School. Mendenhall said because of her ties to FSPS, Dawson should have recused from the vote on the resolution, which passed with all directors except George Catsavis (Ward 3) voting for it.

Mendenhall said at the same meeting (Sept. 3) that Dawson asked about a planning and zoning request at 7420 Ellis Ave. in Chaffee Crossing and “whether it aligned with plaintiff’s or defendants of the lawsuit.” A lawsuit was filed May 17 in Sebastian County Circuit Court concerning a land use change in the historic area of Chaffee Crossing. The Fort Chaffee Redevelopment Authority and its board of trustees filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit June 21. He also said that Dawson asked questions regarding how it would affect surrounding businesses.

The minutes of the Sept. 3 meeting show that Dawson asked if the proposed development aligned with the FCRA guidelines, if it was consistent with surrounding businesses and if would impact any neighboring business. She voted against the land use change, which passed six to one. Though the lawsuit against the land use change in the Chaffee historic district was originally filed against FCRA and its board of trustees, “Dawson was joined as a necessary party (defendant) because she owns a real property interest that may impact the courts final decision on the case,” Mendenhall said.

On April 18, the FCRA board voted to change land use in part of the “historic warehouse district” to industrial/office. The vote came after weeks of sometimes heated discussion on how to rectify an issue of some properties used in non-conforming ways. The board voted to change the area bounded by Darby Avenue, Taylor Avenue, Roberts Boulevard and Terry Street from mixed use: historic use to industrial/office. This will change the area south of Darby Avenue in the historic area but leave the area north of Darby as mixed use: historic.

Fort Smith City Director Robyn Dawson

The lawsuit states the land use change should be deemed invalid because it was of a violation of due process, the land use change is not shown to be in the public interest but rather was “arbitrary and capricious,” and was for the benefit of specific land owners rather than the public as a whole; and “taking with no public purpose is invalid.” The lawsuit was filed by Randy and Tina DeCanter with Old Fort Furniture; John Coats with JKC Cellars LLC and KRIJO Investments; Tasha and Alan Taylor with Truckin Delicious; Quentin Willard with Fort Smith Brewing Co. and QB Ventures and Micah Spahn with Fort Smith Brewing Co.

Revisions to the land use were needed to accommodate property development by CBC Construction & Development, Beam Properties and Blake Properties, all of which have industrial warehouses in the area. However, at the same meeting where the FCRA approved the land use change, the board approved swapping property with CBC Construction & Development so their warehouse would no longer be located in the area in contention. Prior to the land use change, industrial warehouses were of nonconforming use in the specified area. This meant those business could not get approval from the Fort Smith planning and zoning department for any changes or improvements to their property.

During several meetings on the proposed change in land use, property owners who operate with a conforming use in the affected area raised objections to the change. They said changing the land use would harm the historic integrity of the area and not allow it to be a walking, shopping, dining, tourist-drawing and business area. The business owners contend this was the concept they were sold in the area’s master plan and changing the land use will cause property values to fall and keep other businesses from locating to the area.

Later, Mendenhall said in an email to City Administrator Carl Geffken that at the time he made his comments, he did not know Dawson had voted against approved zoning property at 7405 Ellis St. and 7600 Fort Chaffee Blvd. from not zoned to Planned Zoning District (PZD) at the Nov. 5 board meeting.

“Director Dawson was, again, the lone ‘no’ vote for requests having an otherwise unanimous panel voting approval,” Mendenhall said in the email.

At the Nov. 5 meeting, Dawson pointed out to the board that in both requests for the change usage of the property in the PZD would not allow for the properties to be used as a warehouse.

“They have taken out the use of warehouse property although there is warehouse property right next to this property (the property at 7600 Fort Chaffee Boulevard),” Dawson said, noting some property owners in the area purchased property with the specific purpose to be used as a warehouse.

The directors approved both resolutions with a vote of six to one with Dawson opposing in each occurrence. The resolutions only change the zoning for the individual property listed. The proposed zoning change at 7405 Ellis St. will allow the owners to obtain a building permit. Nidec Motor Corporation will use the property for offices. Nidec manufactures a wide range of motors for appliances and industrial machinery and will employ 24 professional jobs. The zoning change at 7600 Fort Chaffee Blvd. will allow Kraig Koren, property owner, to develop the existing building and contractor’s shop into a brewery and contractors office.

These properties are located in the portion of Chaffee Crossing listed as a mixed use: historic area, and the area is intended to be “a pedestrian-friendly environment to encourage the redevelopment of the historic core into a community and/or tourist destination,” said supporting documents for the ordinances.

“Dawson nevertheless launched a criticism for failure to include ‘warehouse,’ an industrial/office (non-conforming) use not permitted north of Darby Avenue and opined that the uses found in the PZD request might not best for neighbors with existing warehouses,” Mendenhall said, noting that her involvement in the discussion is a conflict of interest.

Dawson does own property in the “warehouse district” at Chaffee Crossing, she said in an interview with Talk Business & Politics. The property includes a warehouse with an adjacent large, fenced grassy area. Though the property is a warehouse, it is not used as such, Dawson said. It is used for a construction company Dawson and her husband, Steve, own, she said.
There is heavy equipment parked in the large open fenced area, she said, but there is no ‘warehouse’ business. The company is in the process of developing plans to turn the building into a “venue,” she said.

“In my opinion the discussion of warehouse does not affect me because we don’t have a warehouse,” Dawson said, adding that her property is not zoned.

She also noted that though she is named in the lawsuit, the lawsuit does not affect her, the company or the property at Chaffee Crossing.

“I never thought because I have a property there that I should recuse myself,” Dawson said. “None of the changes voted on affect my property. But there are warehouses out there, and I wanted the board to realize that and to understand that the changes could affect other business.”

Dawson said that though the approved zoning changes made at the Nov. 5 meeting only applied to those two individual properties, they are part of a concerted effort to eliminate warehouses in the district.

At the board meeting, Koren said he specifically wanted his property to not be able to be used as a warehouse so it would fit better into a walking/shopping community area because he believes in the importance of having the area zoned to support that.

“We want to keep warehouses out of that area. Warehouse usage will go against what the area is,” Koren said, adding that he believes the zoning will draw people to the area, allowing for more growth and jobs for the community.

Dawson said she believes this effort is going to negatively impact business owners who purchased property in the area to use for warehouses and who were told at the time they purchased the property it could be used for such purpose.

“There are people out there who have warehouses, and (these other property owners) are trying to make it so there can’t be warehouses. I’m just want to do the right thing,” she said.

Dawson did say Mendenhall may be correct in a way on her not voting on zoning changes that affect area being questioned in the lawsuit, saying perhaps the board of directors should not approve any zoning changes in the area until there is a ruling on the lawsuit.

“Maybe we shouldn’t hear any changes. Maybe he’s right. Let’s stop all zoning changes until the lawsuit is completed,” she said.

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