Smithfield won’t show Pierceville plans

Published 4:35 pm Tuesday, November 2, 2021

Smithfield officials have declined to release preliminary development plans for the former Pierceville homestead.

Former Smithfield Foods Chairman Joseph W. Luter III purchased and razed the 1730s-era farmhouse at 502 Grace St. and the adjacent Little’s Supermarket on Main Street last year. For the past 11 months, the 50-plus acres have been vacant waiting for Luter to break ground on a development of unspecified size.

Joseph Luter IV, son of the former Smithfield Foods chairman, had written to Smithfield’s Town Council last year that his father envisioned “a high quality development,” including office space, multi-family housing “for all income levels,” a “small boutique hotel,” townhouses, single-family homes, assisted-living accommodations and, potentially, a walking trail built in conjunction with the Smithfield YMCA.

In August, Smithfield Planning Commission Chairman Randy Pack said he’d seen presentations showing “240-some apartments” proposed. But fellow Commissioner Julia Hillegass said in October that she had yet to see a site plan for Pierceville, citing that lack of information among her reasons for casting the sole vote against allowing the elder Luter to build duplexes at a smaller development he’d proposed for the corner of Washington and James streets.

The Smithfield Times sought the Pierceville plans via a Freedom of Information Act request on Oct. 21. Town Manager Michael Stallings replied the same day, stating per the advice of Town Attorney William Riddick III that “we have elected to withhold them based on section 2.2-3705.6 (3).”

That section of the Code of Virginia states voluntary information that is provided by a private business “pursuant to a promise of confidentiality from a public body” is excluded from the mandatory disclosure provisions of FOIA if “competition or bargaining is involved” and “disclosure of such information would adversely affect the financial interest of the public body.”

“At this point, we have only presentations that contain some preliminary plans,” Stallings said. “No plans have been provided to us yet. There has only been one set of renderings that were provided to us.”

Those renderings “were provided with the expectation of confidentiality as the project is still in development,” Stallings added. At this time, they “are still considered proprietary and are working papers.”

The particular FOIA exemption the town cited to avoid having to disclose the plans “has been used in similar situations where a development project is still in the development stage,” said Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government — particularly when economic development incentives intended to attract commercial tenants are in play.

Rhyne argues in her blog that these types of incentive deals are usually negotiated behind closed doors — protected by FOIA exemptions — up to the moment they are announced to the public.

Pack, speaking to the Times by phone on Oct. 28, said he and Mayor Carter Williams have met with the project’s development team “in a pre-application setting” on “two separate occasions now.”

“There’s less apartments now,” Pack said. “We told them 240 were probably too many.”

But since the Luters haven’t filed any formal requests for permits, zoning changes or other matters that would come before Smithfield’s Planning Commission and Town Council, “What I tell you is there today may not be there tomorrow,” Pack said. “I think it’s better to let the applicant get their full design done.”

Pack, in addition to chairing the Planning Commission, serves as the Town Council’s liaison to the advisory body. The reason he, but not Hillegass, was at those meetings also pertains to open records laws.

“It would be illegal for the entire Planning Commission to see something in private and not have the public there,” Pack said.

Per state law, meetings of planning commissions and town councils must be open to the public, with notice given at least three working days prior to the meeting date. State law defines the term “meeting” to mean a gathering of three or more members of a public body, physically or via electronic means.

According to Pack, any economic development incentives would fall under the purview of Isle of Wight County’s Department of Economic Development. The county’s economic development staff has attended meetings with the project’s developers, Pack confirmed, at which there was talk of the site including a permanent home for the Smithfield Farmers Market.

If that were to materialize, most of the cost to build such a structure would still fall to Luter, Pack said. Beyond that, he knew of “nothing in play at this time” regarding incentives, nor of any competitive “bidding process.”

In addition to the proposed permanent farmers market, the preliminary plans have shown a hotel, a “couple of restaurants” and “some commercial space,” Pack said.

But as to how many attached and detached residences will be built on the stretch of land that doesn’t front along Main Street, “I don’t know what’s going to go there … I don’t believe the developer knows yet.”

The Smithfield Times spoke to Luter IV by phone on Nov. 1, but he too declined to go into specifics.

“Any conversation at this point is premature,” Luter IV said. “We’re still in the planning process.”

Luter IV said he hopes to have a formalized plan presented and approved in 2022.