A group of Chaffee Crossing business owners who have sued Fort Chaffee Redevelopment Authority over land uses changes in the historic district held a town hall meeting Thursday (Dec. 19) at Fort Smith Brewing Co. in hopes of educating other area residents and obtaining feedback.
“We are having this town hall because we feel like you might not know what all is going on, and we want to hear from you. There are a lot of people fighting for a cause, and we want to make sure we are fighting for what you want,” said Quentin Willard, owner of Fort Smith Brewing Co.
A lawsuit was filed May 17 in Sebastian County Circuit Court concerning a land use change that plaintiffs said would harm the walk and shop concept of the historic area presented in the Fort Chaffee Redevelopment Authority’s master plan. The lawsuit was filed by Willard; Randy and Tina DeCanter with Old Fort Furniture; John Coats with JKC Cellars LLC and KRIJO Investments; Tasha and Alan Taylor with Truckin Delicious; and Micah Spahn with Fort Smith Brewing Co.
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.
The lawsuit alleged that 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 revisions to the land use were needed to accommodate property developed by CBC Construction & Development, Beam Properties and Blake Properties, all of which have industrial warehouses in the area. However, at the same meeting where FCRA approved the land use change, the board approved swapping property with CBC Construction & Development so their warehouse would no longer be 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.
LAND USE CHANGES
Willard explained to the crowd of about 40 at the town meeting that according to the FCRA’s 2017 annual report, the goal of the authority is to maximize the value of Chaffee Crossing by creating an attractive upscale development that includes sound infrastructure, quality housing, recreational and community facilities, retail establishments and business that provide above-average paying jobs. Also, according to the 2017 report, commercial and retail business at Chaffee Crossiing composed 8.42% of the land, but 40.07% of the economic activity.
“A small part of land is generating the most revenue out here,” Willard said before giving an explanation of how the land use in the historic district had changed from 2016 to 2017.
Willard was the first to purchase commercial property in the historic area, he said. After he was sold on the idea of a walk and shop commercial/retail area and started his business, FCRA sold property in the area to individuals wanting to use the historic warehouses as industrial warehouses, Willard said.
In February 2017, FCRA sold property to Steven and Roberta Dawson, allowing a construction yard that is non-conforming to the land use, Willard said. Roberta (Robyn) Dawson is a Fort Smith City Director, but was not at the time of the sale. She was elected in November 2018 and took on the position in January 2019. In March 2017, FCRA sold Beam Properties property for a storage facility, another non-conforming use, Willard said.
“None of us were aware this was happening. We weren’t told,” Willard said.
Over the remainder of 2017 and 2018, FCRA approved the sale of five more warehouses all with plans by the owners to use the property for industrial purposes, Willard said. During that time, multiple commercial business owners made “several offers” to purchase warehouses being sold for industrial purposes, but were told, “no,” Willard said.
“They then sold them to the industrial business. These were not higher offers. We offered market value. A lot of these sold for way less than what we paid for ours,” Willard said. “I paid $85,000 for my building here for the brewery. Two years after that, someone paid $135,000 for three buildings in this district.”
Because of all these non-conforming use sells and the move by the FCRA in April to change the land use of the area, the commercial business owners filed suit. The FCRA and its board of trustees filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit June 21. Nov. 14, Sebastian County Circuit Judge James Cox issued an order of dismissal, which stated that the lawsuit “does not allege facts from which the Court could conceivably determine that the FCRA’s land use enactment was arbitrary, capricious or wholly inequitable.” Nathan Mendenhall, attorney for the plaintiffs, said Thursday he had filed a notice of appeal earlier on behalf his clients.
“It is to say we have the right to an appeal,” Mendenhall said, noting they have three avenues available to them – appeal, to ask for a reversal of the decision and to refile suit. “My clients want to proceed, to exhaust the avenues available in order for our claims to be heard.”
‘WILD WILD WEST’
According to Willard, the situation in the area is that the Dawsons are working on their property and hosting events at the property without permits or fire safety standards. A zoning request for the property should go before the Fort Smith Board of Directors Jan. 7, he added. Randy DeCanter sent Talk Business and Politics a photo of a full parking lot at the warehouse taken Dec. 7, noting there is no certificate of occupancy filed for the property. Willard pointed out other issues in the district that go against the plan the commercial business were told the area would be.
“This is no man’s land. This is the wild wild west. Everyone is doing what they want. The area looks like mixed use industrial and does not have properties that are all conventional situated near each other to better serve the community,” Willard said. “Nobody is checking, overseeing, saying you can’t do that. We’re right in the middle of another sports complex debacle.”
DeCanter said what the business owners want is for the community to be aware of what is going on, to be concerned enough to look into it all and to ask questions of the Fort Smith Board of Directors.“Go to the meeting Jan. 7 at 6 p.m. Ask what are their intentions, what do they want to work out here, what are they going to do,” DeCanter said. “They (FCRA board) can change it (the land use). That’s their right. But we’re saying they can’t change it after they sell us our property for a use that falls into the land use that was in place. I signed on that dotted line. What I got is not what I bought.”
Willard encouraged all those attending the meeting to contact the members of the FCRA board and ask questions.
“We want you to flood their inbox with questions. Who is there to check on what they are doing? Can they change the land use without doing a survey of how it will affect businesses there. Be concerned citizens, care about this community enough to send email and make a phone call. Tell your friends what you learned here today. We need you more than ever. Let’s be that generation that turns Fort Smith around. Let’s believe in one another, let’s support one another,” Willard said.
The group intends to launch a website, keepchaffeewalkable.com, to keep the community up-to-date on the situation.
No one from FCRA or its board was at Thursday’s meeting. Daniel Mann, FCRA executive director, said they were told of the event after it was set and posted. At that time, he explained to Willard he could not be there because he would be traveling.
“We are talking to them. We want to work with commercial businesses out there. We wouldn’t have been able to talk about the land use change anyway because of the lawsuit,” Mann said.
FCRA has a letter of intent with Arvest Bank to purchase a property in the historic district that will bring in 24 more jobs, Mann said. They have three other pending sales for commercial/retail business in the area.
“I continue to be excited about the historic district. We have a lot going on here,” he said.