Planners table mixed-use zoning — again

Published 10:29 pm Tuesday, February 8, 2022

Smithfield’s Planning Commission, on Feb. 8, reconsidered whether to allow mixed-use zoning in town, but again voted to table the matter, this time to a future work session.

The proposed changes to the town’s zoning ordinance would replace the currently unused “planned corporate office and research district” zoning designation with planned mixed-use development, or PMUD.

The new PMUD zoning would allow single-family and multi-family homes, bed-and-breakfast lodging, retail stores and other uses to co-exist on a single parcel measuring at least 5 acres, and set a maximum height of 60 feet to permit four- and five-story buildings.

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The commissioners had voted in January to table the proposed changes indefinitely after residents who spoke in opposition at a public hearing on the matter argued the revised ordinance would make it easier for former Smithfield Foods Chairman Joseph W. Luter III and his son, Joseph W. Luter IV, to secure approval for the “Grange at 10Main” development he hopes to build at the western border of the town’s historic district.

While the idea of allowing mixed-use zoning had originated last year as a result of the Planning Commission’s ongoing process of redoing the town’s comprehensive plan, it is “quite likely the tool the Luters would use to ask for rezoning,” said Commissioner Randy Pack.

The question, as Pack put it, is “Do we create a new zoning district for a developer?”

Chairman Charles Bryan, however, didn’t see it that way.

“I understand the (Luters) would use it,” Bryan said, but to him, making the town’s zoning ordinance current with the recommendations in the draft comprehensive plan by allowing mixed-use zoning in general is “something separate from” any decision on Luter’s proposed development.

“We can’t hamstring ourselves and not have this tool for the entire town” based on how it would be used to move the Luters’ development forward, Vice Chairwoman Julia Hillegass agreed.

“We have a very old and static zoning ordinance,” said Town Attorney William Riddick III.

That said, “now we have a property owner who wants and needs this,” Riddick added, “and so the question is, does that make it the wrong thing to do?”

Commissioner Michael Torrey said he agreed PMUD zoning would be “a good tool to have for parts of town.”

However, “My initial reaction looking at everything that’s in it, everything that you would be able to do, is I would say it shouldn’t apply to the historic district,” Torrey said.

The Luters’ proposed development, named for its location at the intersection of Main Street and Route 10, calls for a 13,300-square-foot permanent farmers market building, a hotel, 225 apartments, 45 single-family homes and duplexes, 33,350 square feet of commercial space and more than 1,000 parking spaces.

The elder Luter had acquired the land by purchasing and razing the former Little’s Supermarket on Main Street and a 1730s-era farmhouse known as Pierceville in 2020. To date, the Luters have not yet submitted an application for rezoning or permits pertaining to the proposed development.

But should the Planning Commission stick with its original plan and postpone voting on allowing PMUD zoning until after the Luters make their application, they’ll never make their application, Riddick said.