It was May 28 when the Fort Smith Board of Directors referred the issue of portable building regulations to the planning commission for further discussion and deliberation. On Wednesday (Oct. 23) the commission finally met in a special study session to discuss the issue, moving one step closer to putting the Fort Smith School District into compliance with the city's unified development ordinance.
The issue came before the Board at the May 28 study session following a complaint from resident David Railey, who had complained about the placement of a temporary building at the district's Parker Center at 811 North T Street.
In responding to Railey's complaint, the city's planning department discovered that the district was, in fact, not complying with a city ordinance that requires property owners to obtain temporary use permits for no more than 120 days. An extension of one year could only be approved by the planning commission, again with the district not in compliance.
Responding to Railey's complaint, Dr. Benny Gooden, superintendent of the Fort Smith Public School District, highlighted 29 different portable buildings either in use or stored by the district. Of these, several have been in use for multiple years, including a portable building at Kimmons Junior High School in use since 1977.
"For more than forty (40) years the Fort Smith Public Schools have utilized portable classroom buildings to address growth and shifts in student population or to provide necessary space for support services," Gooden wrote to City Administrator Ray Gosack in response to Railey's complaint, later adding that throughout the years, the district has complied with the city's other code requirements, including "applicable electrical or plumbing codes as portable structures have been connected to existing utilities."
The planning commission acknowledged the uniqueness of the situation at Fort Smith Schools, which Deputy Superintendent Dr. Gordon Floyd said included installation of portable buildings within days of the start of school to address student population needs. Meeting student capacity, he said, was mandated by the state of Arkansas, meaning the district stood out from other entities that might go through the necessary planning committee requirements with regards to the placement of temporary buildings.
The various options explored by the commission today included the study of how the cities of Conway, Fayetteville, Oklahoma City, and Austin, Texas, deal with temporary buildings in relation to schools.
A memo distributed to the committee highlighted a conversation with Chris Roberts with the city of Austin, who said the municipality has interlocal agreements with six school districts to "give them a break on building permits."
"Essentially, they assume that all buildings are permanent and will go through the building permit process to check for (Handicap accessibility, electric, setbacks, etc.). They do not have a temporary permit for buildings. Furthermore, the schools are not required to go through a public hearing. The modular/temporary type office buildings are approved administratively," the memo read.
Interest was expressed in the system used in Austin, with the committee deciding to take the following proposals to City Attorney Jerry Canfield for consideration in an eventual ordinance amending the unified development ordinance for Fort Smith:
• Limit long-term temporary building use to the Fort Smith Public Schools, meaning private schools in the city would still fall under the city's other UDO regulations;
• The buildings must be integral to school use;
• If a temporary structure is to be left in place for longer than five years, it must come before the planning committee for approval versus administrative approval for shorter periods;
• The building must be an accessory building, meaning it cannot be the primary educational building on a school campus;
• Current temporary buildings on the campuses of all Fort Smith schools and properties would be grandfathered in under the amended ordinance; and
• An appeals process of any decision made by the planning department or committee must be established.
The approval of such an ordinance by the Board of Directors would be necessary before the regulations could take affect. Should Canfield say that any of the proposals to be included in the ordinance could not be legally upheld, Development Services Director Wally Bailey said he would request Canfield appear before the committee in person to address the proposed ordinance at a followup meeting.
Gooden said he was he was pleased with the direction in which the planning committee moved in today, adding that it is similar to what the Board of Directors wanted to do at their May study session before sending the issue back to the committee.
"The direction they're going - they don't want to impede our ability to do our business, but they also want to respect and honor the ordinances of the city. And hey, we try to be good citizens, too, just like everybody else. But we have a little bit (of a) different, unique situation. And we're confident at the end of the day, (and) the city directors at our earlier meeting expressed the same sentiments. We anticipate that we'll continue to work as we have in the past with them."