Smithfield OKs revised historic district ordinance

Published 6:07 pm Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Smithfield’s Town Council adopted revisions to its zoning ordinance Dec. 1, specifically Article 3.M, which concerns the town’s historic preservation overlay district.

The previous wording, which had listed more than 350 downtown addresses as “contributing” or “landmark” structures within the district, was “atypical in Virginia” and had become “lengthy and difficult to navigate,” according to a staff report presented to council in November. In addition to repealing the list of historic properties in Section H, 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, in such poor condition that their preservation is difficult, “unexemplary” of any particular architectural style or having no architectural merit. In place of the list is a map and index of addresses color-coded to show contributing, non-contributing and landmark structures.

According to John Settle, Smithfield’s director of planning and economic development, Suffolk is the only other Virginia jurisdiction that incorporates a list of properties in its historic district ordinance, and Suffolk’s was modeled off Smithfield’s.

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In November, the matter had gone before a public hearing, which drew three speakers in opposition, two of which directly referenced a dilapidated 1730s farmhouse known as Pierceville in their remarks. Among them was Betty Clark, who claimed there were “parts of the 3.M ordinance that, if changed, could affect the Pierceville property and other properties.”

Pierceville, located at 502 Grace St., was recently sold and is slated for demolition. The house has been the subject of controversy since 2009 when town staff issued its former owner, Mary Delk Crocker, a notice of violation of the town’s ordinance for failing to maintain her historic home. The map and index of addresses that replaced Section H still designates Pierceville as a landmark structure, but the council has since granted permission for the structure to be torn down, despite its landmark status.

Settle maintains that the text amendment is unrelated to the Pierceville situation.

“This has been erroneously suggested by others in the past,” he said.

The ordinance revisions are intended to allow town staff some leeway to make technical changes to the map and inventory without the matter needing to go before any Planning Commission or Town Council public hearings, since these will no longer involve changing the language of the zoning ordinance. Staff-approved changes still must be reviewed and decided by the town’s Board of Historic and Architectural Review.

The council had tabled taking action on the ordinance revisions in November, asking for more flexible language to avoid the possibility of all properties with primary buildings less than 50 years old automatically becoming classified as non-contributing structures. Per that direction, town staff added the “unexemplary” and “architectural merit” criteria.

The council had also asked that its members — not the BHAR — have the final say on any change in a property’s classification. As such, when a staff-approved change results in the reclassification of a property, that change now must not only be reviewed and recommended by the BHAR, but also the Town Council for their review and final decision.