Town tables revisions to historic ordinance

Published 8:43 pm Monday, November 2, 2020

Smithfield’s Town Council tabled taking action on a draft revision of its zoning ordinance Monday.

The proposed changes concern the town’s historic preservation overlay district — a topic that’s been a hot-button issue in Smithfield for several years, particularly among residents seeking to save a dilapidated 1730s farmhouse known as Pierceville from demolition.

Three people spoke in opposition to the proposed changes during a public hearing on the matter held that same evening, two of which directly referenced Pierceville in their remarks.

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“Some of you have said the property is too far gone; that is not true,” said Betty Clark. “There are parts of the 3.M ordinance [Article 3.M] that, if changed, could affect the Pierceville property and other properties.”

Robbie Younger urged the Town Council “not to amend any part” of the ordinance, citing her belief that all historic properties in town should be protected, “including Pierceville.”

The ordinance, which lists more than 350 downtown addresses as “contributing” or “landmark” structures within the district, is “atypical in Virginia” and has become “lengthy and difficult to navigate,” according to a staff report included with the meeting agenda. In addition to repealing the list of historic properties in Section H — which includes 502 Grace St., the Pierceville property — the revised wording creates criteria for “non-contributing” structures, which include those less than 50 years old, altered in such a way that they are no longer representative of the era in which they were built, or “in such poor condition that their preservation is difficult.” But a May 2020 map of the historic district still has Pierceville color-coded as a landmark.

Mark Gay, executive director of Preserve Smithfield — a nonprofit formed from public outcry in 2015 over a developer’s plans to build 151 single-family homes on the Pierceville property — claimed in an email to the Town Council members and Town Manager Michael Stallings that the proposed changes to the ordinance would “dilute both federal and state-recognized enforcement provisions” of Article 3.M, which he called the “time-honored and court-upheld linchpin” of Smithfield’s authority to enforce the preservation of historic properties.

A portion of the town’s historic ordinance was struck down, however, in 2019 when Judge Carl E. Eason Jr. ruled in Isle of Wight County Circuit Court that Smithfield must reverse a notice of violation it had issued to Pierceville’s owner, Mary Delk Crocker, compelling her to fix up her home.

Joseph Luter III, the former chairman of Smithfield Foods, is currently in negotiations to buy Pierceville. While Luter has said he hopes to tear the farmhouse down and build something new in its place, Gay called the news of the pending purchase “encouraging.”

“He has a track record of construction excellence to complement his generous philanthropy,” Gay said. “Our Preserve Smithfield Board of Directors and Officers have made known our hope that Mr. Luter will take appropriate steps to preserve and commemorate the very historic physical structures on the Pierceville grounds.”

According to John Settle, Smithfield’s director of community development and planning, Pierceville’s status as a landmark structure will be unchanged by the new wording, despite its dilapidated condition.

“The intent of the new language is to provide clarification as to what a non-contributing property in the Historic Preservation Overlay would generally look like,” Settle said.

The matter was tabled after Councilman Randy Pack asked that the wording be clarified to reflect when the town’s Board of Historic and Architectural Review could and couldn’t act without Town Council approval. According to Town Planner Tammie Clary, the goal, in addition to defining non-contributing properties, had been to allow the BHAR some leeway in approving addresses for new construction sites in the historic district, or de-listing a non-existent address such as 204 Institute St. without the matter having to go through a public hearing with the town’s Planning Commission and then another public hearing before Town Council.