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Truck driving school at Fort Smith mall gets green light

by Thomas Saccente | May 17, 2021 at 2:00 a.m.
Fort Smith Development Services Director Maggie Rice speaks during the Fort Smith Board of Directors regular meeting Tuesday. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Thomas Saccente)

FORT SMITH -- A truck driving school may offer training for its students in a mall parking lot despite objections from the city's Planning Commission.

The city Board of Directors voted 5-1 Tuesday to allow CDL Academy to operate a truck driving school at Central Mall at 5111 Rogers Ave. The academy may do driver training, as well as pre-trip inspections, in the northeast part of the mall's parking lot along South Waldron Road by Dillard's.

The board's vote came upon an appeal of a Planning Commission decision denying the academy a conditional use request.

City Director and Vice Mayor Jarred Rego supported the appeal. He said seeing academy students and trucks in the mall parking lot to him represents growth, opportunity and the productive use of an empty parking lot "at a mall that has seen better days."

"The empty parking lot isn't providing quality jobs with opportunities for growth," Rego said.

The approval came with a condition it expires at the end of CDL Academy's lease with Central Mall. Dennis Sights, the academy's chief financial officer, said the two-year lease began Feb. 1. Sights agreed with the board's decision.

This amendment was approved 4-2. Directors George Catsavis and Kevin Settle voted against it. Director Lavon Morton was absent.

Settle also opposed the amended motion. He argued against allowing a trucking school around the center of the city on the two thoroughfares of South Waldron Road and Rogers Avenue.

"It's really about what we're going to do with the properties in that area," Settle said. "Property owners around that area have a say because their properties are going to potentially devalue because there's a trucking school in a parking lot that's trying to attract new business or people in that area."

Maggie Rice, the city's development services director, wrote in a memo the Planning Commission denied conditional use requests from CDL Academy for a truck driving school March 9 and April 13. The first request proposed training take place in the southeast part of the mall's parking lot next to Rogers Avenue. No commissioner voted in favor of either item.

Rice said the property is commercial regional, or C-4. A technical or trade school requires conditional use approval from the commission because it allows "a wide variety of technical or trade-type schools," including those for truck driving.

"And the Planning Commission viewed the proposed truck driving maneuvering, the maneuvering of semis in the parking lot, as an incompatible land use with the mall and the adjacent retail centers around it," Rice said.

Commission Chairman Don Keesee said during the commission's April 13 meeting the mall parking lot was inappropriate for the truck driving school "based on aesthetics, purpose and public safety," according to meeting minutes.

Max Avery, agent for CDL Academy, wrote in his appeal of the commission's decision the academy's trucks wouldn't exceed 5 mph in the parking lot. The part of the lot the academy would use for training would also be blocked off with cones and students' vehicles. Sights said the academy's trucks would be in use from about 9 a.m. until 3 or 4 p.m. every day.

Scott McDonald, the mall's general manager, wrote in a letter the mall granted CDL Academy, one of its tenants, access to use its parking lot for driver training. Sights said the school also has the support of Dillard's.

The idea of approving the appeal with a limit based on the school's lease came from Director Robyn Dawson. Dawson said while she wanted CDL Academy to operate in the city, she was torn due to the commission's decisions and her own uncertainty of the mall being a suitable venue for the school.

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Fort Smith Unified Development Ordinance — Conditional Uses

The approval of conditional uses is based on compliance with certain development standards and design specifications. These include:

The design, location and operating plans for the use will make sure the public’s safety is protected.

The land use proposed will not adversely affect nearby properties.

The size and shape of the site in relation to the size, shape and arrangement of structures meets certain minimum requirements.

The entrances and exits, internal street systems, off-street parking and loading facilities and pedestrian walkways are sufficient for the proposed purpose.

Nearby properties will be protected from fumes, lighting, noise, glare, dust and odor.

Landscaping and screening needed to meet the intent of the section of the unified development ordinance will be provided.

The property owner will maintain open space.

Signs will conform to certain requirements.

Source: Fort Smith Unified Development Ordinance, Section 27-332-5(E)

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