Fort Smith Board approves development plan rejected by city planning commission

by Michael Tilley ([email protected]) 3,100 views 

The Fort Smith Board of Directors on Tuesday (March 7) approved proceeding with what has become a controversial plan for a more than $10 million commercial and multifamily residential development on Old Greenwood Road that is adjacent to residential areas.

Jackson Goodwin of Mickle Griffin Engineers, agent for Sara and Brian Goodwin, sought to rezone a mix of commercial and residential-duplex and residential-multifamily property at 2902 to 2928 Old Greenwood Road to a Planned Zoning District (PZD). The proposed “Viguet Landing” development includes a 6-story building with residential and commercial space, and duplex units. Goodwin told Talk Business & Politics the 6-story building and associated infrastructure would cost around $10 million, with duplex and apartment work not included in the $10 million. Goodwin is Sara and Brian’s son.

“A PZD is currently the only way to zone a property properly for a multi-use development. All buildings on this site will fulfill the intent of the PZD by having 100% high quality materials on their façades. A 25’ buffer area will also be provided along both the West and South portions of this property,” Goodwin noted in the PZD application to the city.

The Fort Smith Planning Commission on Feb. 14 denied Goodwin’s request with an 8-1 vote. Goodwin submitted an appeal of the Planning Commission vote to the Fort Smith Board. The Planning Commission also approved in a 6-3 vote a Master Land Use Plan amendment designed to “facilitate the rezoning to a PZD for the construction of a mixed-use development,” according to a memo from Maggie Rice, director of development services for the city. The mixed-use development would consist of multi-story buildings with a mix of commercial uses and residential uses including duplexes.

The PZD denial by the Planning Commission followed neighborhood meetings in which many area residents raised concerns about traffic, building height, privacy, drainage, the number of duplex units to be built, and the clientele who would live in the duplexes. A large group of area residents also gathered Feb. 28 at a Fort Smith Board study session to oppose Goodwin’s appeal of the Planning Commission denial. Goodwin said at the study session that property owners now have the ability to build apartments and duplexes on the property without agreeing to many of the neighborhood requests that they have factored into the PZD plan.

Jo Carson, a Fort Smith attorney who lives near the property and was selected to speak for residents opposing the PZD, said then that a property study showed that building nearby duplexes could reduce their residential property values by 20%.

“We are not trying to micromanage somebody’s use of their own property. We are still not clear why they haven’t developed it up until now. But I will tell you that PZDs are usually used by developers who want some broad discretion. They want the ability to change. And I can tell you that there are many people here that are worried, that as we go through this project … that we would not really know, that this would be a shifting target of what we’d actually get,” Carson said at the Feb. 28 study session.

Board members were set to vote Tuesday on two items related to the development: the master land use amendment, and an appeal of the Planning Commission denial of the PZD. Around 120 people gathered Tuesday at the board meeting, with most of those opposing approval of both items.

City Director Kevin Settle attempted to challenge Goodwin on not having a specific development plan and accused him of “playing with people’s lives.” He chastised Goodwin for wanting a broad land use request without providing the city development details.

Goodwin rebutted, saying all development details eventually go through engineering and design approvals by the city, including drainage that has to meet extensive standards established by the city. In response to a Board question, Rice confirmed Goodwin’s rebuttal, and noted that development would have to meet all city standards. Rice said a PZD allows a developer to “gain commitment without undue financial risk,” but the primary benefit for the city is that the development then has to exceed the city’s Unified Development Ordinance codes.

Despite Rice’s attempt to explain that a developer has to meet or exceed city code, Settle continued, saying the city has never been asked to consider a PZD rejected by the Planning Commission. He said it would be “so unfair to the men and women of this neighborhood” to reverse the Planning Commissions denial and approve the PZD.

Prior to questioning by Settle, Goodwin told the board that existing zoning allows for an 8-story building with no tree buffer to area neighborhoods. Goodwin said he met with those opposing the project and made several development concessions, including providing a 25-foot tree buffer that is 14% of the developable property. Concessions also included limiting the structure to 6-stories, allowing vehicle access only on Old Greenwood Road, and removing tattoo parlors and tobacco stores from allowable uses on the property.

Goodwin said the developer wants the development to be an “awesome new tax base increase for the city” and bring unique development “back to the heart of the city” instead of seeing development going east and south of the city.

“This is a passion project. … He wants to be a good neighbor. He wants people around here to come use this,” Goodwin said.

Several audience members spoke against repeal of the PZD denial, with the common theme being traffic concerns, speculation about sex offenders being able to live on the property, and potential “peeping toms” peering from the 6-story building into the nearby neighborhoods.

The board voted 4-3 to approve the amended master land use plan, and voted 4-3 to reverse the PZD denial. Voting to reverse the PZD and to amend the master land use plan were Directors Christina Catsavis, André Good, Lavon Morton, and Jarred Rego. Voting against both items were Directors George Catsavis, Neal Martin, and Kevin Settle.

Goodwin told Talk Business & Politics that overall development plans could be ready by the end of the year at the earliest, with construction possibly beginning in mid- to late 2024.