Smithfield Planners oppose ‘by right’ five-story buildings in mixed use zoning

Published 9:10 pm Tuesday, March 1, 2022

Following a 1½-hour Feb. 23 work session, Smithfield’s Planning Commission is now leaning against the idea of allowing four- and five-story buildings as “by right” uses in mixed-use developments.

Since December, the commission has been debating a proposed change to Smithfield’s zoning ordinance that 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 coexist on a single parcel.

One provision in the proposed changes would have set a maximum height of 60 feet for PMUD structures instead of the current 35-foot limit. The 60-foot allowance had been listed in the draft changes as a “by right” use, meaning a developer who successfully petitioned Smithfield’s Planning Commission and Town Council for PMUD zoning wouldn’t have to seek additional approval to build four- and five-story structures.

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After questioning whether the proposed PMUD zoning or the town’s Historic Preservation Overlay District zoning would take precedence should a developer seek PMUD zoning in the town’s historic district, the commissioners agreed to strike the 60-foot by-right provision and instead require a special use permit for anything over 35 feet.

The Historic Preservation Overlay District requires developers of new construction to “take into account … special qualities that the HP-O District is established to protect, including building heights” but doesn’t set a specific maximum height. As an overlay district that applies on top of existing zoning, the historic district instead requires maximum building heights to be determined by “regulations applicable to the other districts over which the HP-O District is superimposed.”

Former Smithfield Foods Chairman Joseph W. Luter III proposes to build a mixed-use development on 50-plus acres at the western edge of Smithfield’s historic district. The development would be named “The Grange at 10Main” for its location at Main Street and Route 10.

While Luter has yet to apply for rezoning or permits, his preliminary plans call for a 13,300-square-foot permanent farmers market building, a hotel, three- and four-story apartment complexes with a total of 225 units, 45 single-family homes and duplexes, 33,350 square feet of commercial space and more than 1,000 parking spaces.

While some commissioners have acknowledged PMUD zoning is likely the route Luter would choose to obtain the needed approvals for his proposed development, others see the ordinance changes and whatever decision they make on Luter’s proposal as separate and unrelated.

“We’re not changing this just for this project … this is not about The Grange at all,” said Commissioner Julia Hillegass.

Commissioner Randy Pack, who also serves on the Town Council, further suggested increasing the minimum lot size for which a developer could request PMUD zoning. The draft ordinance changes currently would restrict PMUD to tracts of at least 5 acres. Pack proposed increasing the minimum to 20 acres, while Chairman Charles Bryan preferred 10 acres.

Commissioner Dr. Thomas Pope then turned to the matter of density, stating he would prefer to strike language mandating a minimum 10-foot side yard setback and a maximum 2.0 floor area ratio for residential and commercial structures alike.

A setback refers to the minimum distance between structures, while floor area ratio measures the square footage of a proposed building to the square footage of the parcel on which it would be located.

According to Smithfield’s existing zoning ordinance, floor area ratio is calculated by dividing the gross floor area of all buildings on a lot by the area of that lot. For the residential components of a mixed-use development, the number of houses per acre would depend on the gross floor area of each house.

Instead of using this calculation, Pope proposed adding references to the town’s existing zoning laws pertaining to commercial and residential density.

“It’s too dense as written,” Pope said.

He then offered to draft his own density language and provide copies to the other commissioners at their next meeting for their consideration.

Pack also wants to see language added requiring a developer to fund traffic and environmental impact studies completed by firms of the town’s choice, to eliminate any perceived pro-developer bias in such studies.