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Fort Smith Board approves Chaffee road closure, Whirlpool pollution protection

story by Ryan Saylor
rsaylor@thecitywire.com

The Fort Smith Board of Directors voted Tuesday (Sept. 2) to close a portion of Veterans Avenue in Chaffee Crossing to make way for possible future expansion plans for the Arkansas College of Osteopathic Medicine.

According to Fort Smith Director of Development Services Wally Bailey, "the closure is requested because the portion of right-of-way proposed for abandonment bisects the medical school site and is of no value to the school's overall master plan.”

The closure of Veterans Avenue would allow the medical school to grow to the northwest at a future time, as needed, according to Larry Hall of Risley-Associates, a Fort Smith-based architecture firm working with the school on its master plan.

In order to accommodate the road closure, trucks that use the route along Veterans Avenue will have to re-route along Frontier Boulevard to Taylor Avenue, then to Fort Chaffee Road and then back to Roberts Boulevard, according to Bailey. The change in routes is expected to add four to five miles for trucks servicing industrial clients in Chaffee Crossing area, he added.

No opposition was present at Tuesday's regular board meeting, though Graphic Packaging had expressed concerns about the re-routing of trucks through the area. Bailey said the concerns were addressed Tuesday in an email reply to the company and the company said it was not expressing a challenge to the plans. The plan to close the section of Veterans Avenue through the medical school site was approved by a vote of 7-0, with Bailey noting that no emergency clause was requested to make the closure immediate.

The reason, he said, was to allow the city to work with industrial companies to re-route trucks servicing Chaffee Crossing facilities during the next 90 days.

First drawings of floor plans and possible buildings at the site were unveiled Aug. 21, with a planned $60 million, three-story building to be built starting in January 2015. Completion of the first building is expected in July 2016, with a possible first class of osteopathic students scheduled to begin classes at the site in August 2016.

The Board also approved a set of resolutions dealing with Whirlpool and the road widening project at Jenny Lind Road and Ingersoll Avenue, where potentially cancer-causing trichloroethylene has caused property values to drop in the area. The situation has resulted in lawsuits for property damages while Whirlpool works with the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality to clean up the pollution caused by the use of a degreasing agent containing TCE at its now-closed factory.

City Administrator Ray Gosack said a resolution adopted by the Board would further the city's efforts to protect construction workers at the site from possible exposure to TCE contamination, which has been discovered at 15 feet below the surface in water, though no TCE contamination has yet been found in soil samples taken at the construction site.

"So we've drafted an agreement with Whirlpool that would give them access to the construction site if they need it. It would also require that if the city has to take extraordinary measures during the construction because of the TCE contamination, that Whirlpool would reimburse the city for the cost of implementing those measures to deal with the TCE contamination," Gosack told the Board.

The second resolution accepted a donation of land from Whirlpool valued at $53,900 that will be used in the road widening project.

In other business, the Board approved a resolution that sets fourth a suggested best practice guide for the Board of Directors. Gosack noted that it was not an ordinance and therefore not rule of law. Past inceptions of the guide, previously known as a "Board Governance" policy guide, included rules for censuring Board members but were eventually taken out as concerns were raised.

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City Director Pam Weber, who initially proposed a packet for new Board members, joined City Directors George Catsavis and Philip Merry in voting against the resolution because she said the proposal went too far.

"I'm concerned about this and I was the one who broached the subject at (the Board of Directors) retreat, but I'm concerned about this because what we asked for and what we got are totally different. I think we asked for a document that said these are your responsibilities, these are the things that you do, a broad-ranging document," she said. "To me, this is very specific and I don't want something that in five years or more, a Board member's going to feel handcuffed by or that they can't do something that's in the best interest of their constituents. So I have great concerns with it. I think we went a little too far in this."

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