Sebastian County pushes back against talk of a Planters Road extension

by Tina Alvey Dale ([email protected]) 2,353 views 

The Fort Chaffee Redevelopment Authority (FCRA) Board of Trustees tabled discussion of the sale of property to Sebastian County that could determine the future of a Planters Road extension in Fort Smith.

As discussions continued at city meetings and on social media about a proposed controversial extension of Planters Road, Sebastian County officials were working to make sure if the extension happened, it wouldn’t infringe upon Ben Geren Park and its many trails.

At an Aug. 29 Fort Smith Board of Directors meeting, Director of Engineering Stan Snodgrass presented a proposal for a $16 million project that would complete the design for Planters Road east from its terminus adjacent to Gerdau Steel. The street would extend 7,200 feet to provide a direct route from Highway 45 to Massard Road. Snodgrass said there are floodplain and wetland issues along this corridor that will have to be addressed as part of the design.

“This is one that has been on the books since early 2000. It was actually pushed back in lieu of doing the Chad Colley extension to the south,” Snodgrass said. “We think we need to get it back in the program as time sees fit.”

Many objections were raised that night and the following weeks by groups who use the mountain bike and walking trails that would be affected, residents who live in the area and Sebastian County. Jay Randolph, administrator of Ben Geren Park, addressed the board of directors Aug. 29 to “relay concerns park goers, trail users and homeowners have had against the extension since get go.” Randolph also told directors that Gerdau was against the extension. (Talk Business & Politics has not yet been able to confirm Gerdau’s official opinion on the extension.)

“It starts at Gerdau that doesn’t want it. Then there’s the deal with threatened species (Bell’s Road Skipper butterfly and the American burying beetle) in the wetlands. Then you get into our trails. There are five trails including hard surface trails … directly affected by putting a road over the top of the trails,” Randolph said.

He said Ben Geren Park and the trails are an oasis in middle of class concrete and stone.

“This is our Central Park in the river valley. The indirect effect is to the trails and all peace and tranquility,” Randolph said.

At a Sept. 12 Board of Directors study session, Director Lavon Morton said the map presented with the Planters Road proposal “has been the subject of so much discussion on one hand and has been misinterpreted.” He said the extension was only a concept, which the board has never discussed.

“Now all the discussion that has come to us has caused me, and I’m sure other directors to ask several questions about the route that is there. It’s clear a lot who are very passionate about trails and greenways and trees and with that information in mind and some other information we have obtained, my thought is that in looking at alternatives,” Morton said.

He suggested the city look to the south away from Planters Road to Burroughs Road or perhaps to Excelsior Road and go on the other side of the city’s landfill away from Ben Geren Park.

“There is no current need for Planters Road (to be extended), and honestly, when presented as a concept, it was way off in the future. I am confident in time, we’ll come up with a good route for safety that is not extending Planters Road,” Morton said.

City Administrator Carl Geffken said the thought of the Planters Road extension came from the direction of the board to make certain the city was spending the 1% sales tax for streets, roads and drainage.

“We provided those options, and that’s all they were. It was considered an option,” Geffken said. “There is no construction going on. No design that’s been going on. It was just a way for the city to look at how we can reinvest the money you have given us back into the community. No way shape, way or form, is it a done deal. It’s not even a deal, and it is nothing that is going to be going forward with Planters Road at this point.”

Sebastian County officials, however, moved to ensure Ben Geren Park was safe if the extension is ever approved. On Aug. 31, Sebastian County Judge Steve Hotz sent a letter to FCRA, inquiring whether property adjacent to the park that was to be used in the extension was for sale. On Wednesday (Sept. 20), Hotz sent a letter to FCRA noting that Sebastian County would offer $172,800 (or $6,000 an acre) for 28.8 acres of FCRA property between Planters Road and Massard Road, sometimes referred to as the Planters Road extension property.

“It is the County’s desire to acquire property to maintain continuity of Ben Geren Park, which consists of 1,229 acres total with 978 acres north of said property and 251 acres south of said property. … With purchase of this property, the citizens of the county will be able to enjoy the entirety of the park without the noise, disturbance and safety concerns of a road splitting our park in two not to mention crossing several park trails,” Hotz said in the letter.

The Sebastian County Quorum Court had authorized Hotz to make the offer at its meeting Tuesday night (Sept. 19). The matter was placed on the agenda of the FCRA board’s meeting Thursday.

At that meeting, Geffken objected to the sale. Geffken said after learning at 4 p.m. the day that the purchase offer was going on the agenda, he had Jerry Canfield, attorney for Fort Smith, to look into the matter.

“As you know, the 2001 Agreement between FCRA and the City required the City to extend Planters Road and for FCRA to provide the right of way for such extension. Amendment 4 to the Agreement in 2007 recognized the City’s construction of the Chad Colley extension would serve as an west to east corridor and that its construction would satisfy the City’s Planters Road extension obligation of Paragraph III B.2 of the 2001 Agreement. Amendment 2 to the 2001 Agreement included a map showing the location of the Planters Road extension. It is our opinion that irrespective of Amendment 4 to the 2001 Agreement, the original agreement and Amendment 2 map demonstrate the parties’ expectation that the area at issue is to be used as the right of way for the Planters Road extension,” Canfield said in a memo sent to the FCRA.

At Thursday’s meeting, Dalton Person, attorney for FCRA, said that though he had just briefly looked through the memo, he is inclined to disagree with Canfield.

“I don’t think the party expectation is binding. I think there is a difference between what parties expect and what parties are inclined to do,” Person said.

Hotz said that is the county’s belief that when the city built Chad Colley, it relinquished their request to the property as the right of way for the Planters Road extension.

“If the property is) available for sale, the county has offered to buy it. We would like to purchase. We definitely think it would be detrimental to Ben Geren Park,” Holtz said. “We think the noise, traffic … would be detrimental to the park. We would like to purchase it. I know this is something that has been floating around, obviously, since 2001. Our goal is for FCRA to retire itself, and so, this is another thing we can get off the table and put this to bed for everyone.”

The FCRA board agreed to table the item until the October meeting in order to give legal counsel time to review the information and work with the county and the city in hopes that an agreement can be reached.