Fort Smith Planning Commission rejects military overlay district ordinance

by Tina Alvey Dale ([email protected]) 2,310 views 

Fort Smith Planning Commission members gather for a May 14 meeting.

The Fort Smith Planning Commission voted four to three against unified development ordinance (UDO) amendments that would create a Military Compatibility Area Overlay District some city officials have said are necessary prior to arrival of F-35 fighter jets.

Ebbing Air National Guard Base, home to the 188th Wing in Fort Smith and co-located with the Fort Smith Regional Airport, was selected in March 2023 by the U.S. Air Force to be the long-term pilot training center supporting F-16 and F-35 fighter planes purchased by Singapore, Switzerland, Poland, Germany, Finland and other countries participating in the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program. Initial estimates are that 1,500 military personnel and family members will be associated with the new center once it is fully operational.

U.S. Air Force officials have said the earliest planes and pilots from foreign nations could arrive at Ebbing would be in late 2024, part of the military’s fiscal year 2025 beginning in September 2024. The full complement of 12 F-16s and 24 F-35s from various nations could arrive in fiscal year 2026 at the earliest. It has been estimated that the full cost to create an operational foreign pilot training center will be $850 million.

Commissioners Don Keesee, Brian Trumbly, Matt Marshall and Shaun McCaffrey voted against the UDO change during the commission’s Tuesday (May 14) meeting. Ralph Taylor, Rod Coleman and Griffin Hanna voted in favor, and David Tyler abstained.

The proposed “Military Compatibility Area Overlay District” was developed by the city to “protect public health, safety, and welfare of the community and preserve and maintain existing and future operational capabilities of the Fort Smith Regional Airport/Ebbing Air National Guard Base.”

The city set out a proposed set of guidelines dealing with lighting in areas near the airport, sound reduction requirements in new construction in the area included in the overlay and height restrictions on new construction on property connecting to airport property. For property physically contiguous to the airport, there are more stringent guidelines proposed for new construction that include a maximum height of 20 feet and a 30-foot buffer between buildings and the airport property. Also, any property to be sold to a foreign entity would require approval by the Fort Smith Board of Directors.

“I have major issues with several components of this,” said Keesee, planning commission chair. “I think the city is trying to do some right things, but I think they are struggling to maybe find the right things.”

Keesee said one of the major things the planning commission wanted to know in study sessions regarding the overlay district and the regulations is whether they were requirements or requests of the United States military.

“I personally have not heard that answer,” he said. “I want to know that the military said, ‘We want these things.’”

Keesee reiterated concerns brought up in the meeting by property owners of land adjacent to the airport. Some of the initial details in the overlay district have been relaxed following citizen input, but allowable development in buffer areas adjacent to the airport and property sales to foreign entities continue to be an issue with some property owners and residents with homes in the overlay district.

Fort Smith Attorney John Alford, speaking on behalf of clients with property adjacent to the airport, said having a 30-foot no-build zone across property is problematic.

“That property becomes not usable. Unfortunately, property owners still have to pay real estate taxes and insurance and maintain the property. There is nothing (in the proposed changes) about how they will be compensated for that loss,” Alford said.

He said height restrictions also limit how property owners can use their property. Those restrictions impact the marketability of the property, he said.

“This all needs to be better defined,” Alford said. “It is not in a form that can give proper notice to owners of what can be done.”

Keesee agreed that height restrictions are ambiguous and also agreed with Alford that an overlay district that basically encompasses the entirety of Fort Smith is too much. He also said that there should be some compensation for property owners who can not use a percentage of their property because of security regulations.

“It’s not right taking that much property,” Keesee said.

There were some who supported the district. Fort Smith homebuilder Rocky Walker, speaking on behalf of the Greater Fort Smith Association of Homebuilders, said concerns raised by homebuilders were addressed and they now support approval of the overlay district.

David Ingram said he is for the F-35 jets coming to Fort Smith, but told commissioners the city needs to do a better job of educating residents about the new pilot training center.

“I’m all for a strong military. I always looked forward to Thunderbirds and Blue Angels. Our military is the best in the world. It’s a great honor to have this coming here. … It’s all abstract right now. We need to make it more concrete. We need more concrete evidence, like videos of the F-35’s flying, interviews with people experiencing it. It’s a digital world. We need more to show people this is a good thing,” Ingram said.