Much to like about rezoning debate

Published 5:10 pm Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Putting aside for a moment the merits and demerits of a new housing development off Battery Park Road, we are heartened by the civic engagement surrounding the related rezoning decisions.

What was believed to be a record crowd for a town Planning Commission meeting filled the available chairs at the Smithfield Center last week, with many people standing around the perimeter. Evident in their opposition to the 800-plus-home Mallory Scott Farm project was an abiding love for Smithfield and Isle of Wight and a concern about the community’s future should it follow other Tidewater communities down the path of unbridled growth.

A petition bearing more than 2,000 names opposed to the project speaks to the collective nerve the proposed housing development has struck. We commend the work of its organizers in making sure opposition voices are heard.

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The Planning Commission, chaired by Town Councilman Randy Pack, deserves some credit as well. The panel wisely sent developer John Napolitano back to the drawing board last fall, resulting in a scaled-down project that, while still huge, is more than a quarter smaller than originally proposed. Pack did a commendable job running last week’s public hearing, letting 20-plus opponents and the developer himself have their say, only once having to ask for order in the energized crowd.

The commission acted wisely, in our view, by tabling its recommendation on eight zoning-related changes the project would require.

The Planning Commission is only an advisory body, but its recommendations tend to carry great weight with the Town Council, which will have the final say. Last week’s public hearing gave Pack and the other commissioners much to think about.

Citizen opposition must be balanced with consideration of the town’s tax base and future economic health. We agreed with the observation of the developer and even several opponents at the public hearing that the prime property near Battery Park and Nike Park roads will eventually be developed with housing. Given that inevitability, town officials must decide whether the current proposal is the right one.

It won’t be an easy call, but the process to date — high citizen engagement, some concessions by the developer on the size and particulars of the project, and a planning commission that is unemotionally, but carefully, doing its job — has unfolded exactly as it should.