The western corner of South 46th Street and Rogers Avenue is currently a field with several trees and a small pond, but it could be the future site of a Casey’s General Store and gas station.

Fort Smith’s Board of Directors voted 4-3 at its Tuesday meeting to accept an ordinance amending the master use plan map and rezoning the property and accepting a resolution to approve the action of the city’s planning commission allowing the conditional use for a convenience store with gasoline sales.

Currently, the land is owned by St. Scholastica Monastery and listed on the plan map as public institutional. It needs to be changed to general commercial in order to rezone the property from residential single family duplex low/medium density (RSD-2) to commercial light (C-2), according to a memo from Director of Development Services Wally Bailey to City Administrator Carl Geffken.

C-2 zone allows for office, service and retail activities located in proximity to neighborhoods but serve larger areas than just those they are near. It is the lowest commercial zoning district that will allow for a convenience store with gasoline sales, according to Bailey’s memo.

The memo, along with an additional memo from the planning staff to the city planning commission, said there was a neighborhood meeting held at 5:30 p.m. Sept. 27 at 5704 Euper Lane but no property owners were in attendance.

According to municipal code 27-304, it is required for a neighborhood meeting to be held on issues of rezoning, master land use plan changes and conditional use applications. Residents within 300 feet are required to be notified by mail of the meeting. If a meeting is not held — they can be waived if the project will have minimal impact on surrounding properties and the neighborhood — residents must be notified by mail, and the letter has to include the project’s description, drawing or map, and contact information.

Vice Mayor and At-large Director Kevin Settle asked why more information wasn't released to public, instead of requesting the conditional use applications. Bailey said the conditional usage limits the use of the land. In a subsequent agenda item, Settle said he wanted residents on S. 46th Street from Rogers Avenue to Free Ferry Road to be notified of any additional information related to the proposed project, saying 300 feet is a “football field.”

Development Services would not confirm the method or time of the initial meeting notification. The Times Record was told to contact city Communications Manager Karen Santos, who was unavailable at the time of publication.

Deputy City Administrator Jeff Dingman said he believes the department notified the residents within the 300 feet of the project by mail, though there was no indication by residents they were aware of this meeting.

Not a minor adjustment

John Alford, representing area residents, said he frequently receives letters from St. Scholastica asking for donations but didn't know the land was being sold. He said many of his neighbors didn't get notice of the plans. The rezoning application was approved by the planning commission 8-1 on Oct. 9. The Times Record was not in attendance due to another city meeting scheduled at the same time.

“I am here on behalf of many of my neighbors to oppose the rezoning of this corner of 46th and Rogers Avenue, not only just the rezoning to a commercial zone, but also the use that is proposed for this corner,” Alford said.

Alford said the owners don’t consider the request “to be a minor adjustment.” There are concerns about “carving this property up.”  
He mentioned an area at the top of the hill, near the monastery, leads to a creek that catches water and into a pond behind an apartment complex. Alford said they are concerned about potential gasoline spills and other pollutants getting into the water, trash, light and increased traffic.

James Skloda, Casey’s legal counsel, addressed in a letter dated Nov. 2 many of Alford’s concerns. Skloda said there should not be any additional traffic because, “convenience stores are not destinations facilities” and “depend on pass-by users for their customer base.”

The letter said a traffic study was done from 7 a.m. to 8:15 a.m. Oct. 24 and 3:30 p.m. to 5:15 p.m. Oct. 23, evaluating the intersection’s peak times. Skloda said the findings indicate all cars cleared the intersection and there were no “stacking” issues. Alford mentioned there are instances when the left turn lane is not accessible due to 46th Street being one lane and not having a right turn only. No other times were evaluated.

Skloda said lighting will be dark-sky compliant and meet the city’s requirements, and there will be an underground detention system beneath the store’s parking lot. Travis Brisendine of Morrison Shipley Engineers, on behalf of St. Scholastica and Casey’s, called it a buffer between the store and the creek, but Alford was unconvinced.

“Do we want and do we need another convenience store at this location?” Alford said, mentioning the Citgo station situated directly across from the proposed Casey’s location. “If you drive by it in 10 years and it’s a park or something other than a convenience store, you’re going to say, ‘I’m glad that I did something,’ but if you let it become a convenience store, it’ll always be a convenience store. You’re never going to reverse it.”

‘You’ll never undo it’

One of Settle's largest issues with the project was the creek. Brisendine said the intent is to pull it to the front of the property, pipe it and run drainage underground. The Vice Mayor was not convinced it is possible to reroute the creek around the hill to build the store.

Brisendine said it is not a creek but a drainage channel, providing run off during storms and not fed by a source of water. Either way, he said it's common to relocate channels, and their system must have the capacity for the current run off and the extra to be produced.

“We will have to run that through the engineering department to make sure that capacity is still in place, even after we relocate it,” Brisendine said.

“We don’t know if what we’re going to do is going to have a capacity problem?” Settle asked.

“We have designed it,” Brisendine said. “I’m just saying we haven’t submitted it to Stan (Snodgrass, Fort Smith director of engineering) for final approval.”

Settle asked if plans should be complete before it comes to the board, but Bailey said that’s not the city’s policy.

Bailey said companies don't submit in-depth designs early due to expense.

Settle said, in this case, he wants a plan to move and pipe the drainage creek. He said another hundred-year rain could occur and the pipe could back up with waste, and wasn’t comfortable approving the rezoning or proposed usage.

Bailey said no building permit will be issued until every associated city department approves the plans. Settle was not convinced.

“Once we rezone it, it stays,” Settle said. “I’m going to agree with Mr. Alford here. Once you turn this into a gas station, it’ll never go back. You’ll never undo it, and we have gas stations everywhere.”

Talking business

Ward 1 Director Keith Lau and Ward 3 Director Mike Lorenz said they were not concerned with the traffic or drainage. Lau believes the city will perform its due diligence in making sure the property and construction is done correctly.

The two directors also said they see the intersection as one of the busiest in Fort Smith, and there’s no location more commercial. Lau said unless there is any professionally backed evidence to support Alford’s claims, he remains in the position that it would be good for the city.

Alford conceded that the residents would be OK with other possible developments, just not a convenience store.

“We’re sending the message that we want to make it as hard as possible for a developer that I know has already done the market study; they know this is a need or they wouldn’t be investing the money to put it there,” Lorenz said. “I don’t think Casey’s goes around just randomly picking pieces of property. I think they’ve done the research, they know what they’re going to do, they know this is the right location.”

The application from Morrison Shipley Engineers for the master land use map amendment was included in the Nov. 6 agenda packet. It, however, lists no answer to the request on page 28 to “provide explanation of the need for and the demand in the proposed uses.”

At-large Director Tracy Pennartz said a negative vote doesn't indicate she or any other director is anti-business.

“I think my record shows I’ve been as pro-business as any board member here, so I would personally object to that statement and indicate that there may be other valid reasons for not voting for the proposal before us,” Pennartz said. 

Agenda items 2 and 3A were approved by the directors 4-3, but because the proposals did not gain at least five votes in support, the issue will be revisited another two times. According to City Attorney Jerry Canfield, the board can take action on each reading, so the board can re-approve or vote down the issue.