No place for Luter attacks in Pierceville debate

Published 6:19 pm Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Opposition to a multiuse development of the Pierceville property falls into several categories, as opposition to development usually does.

There are the very legitimate concerns of neighbors who understand all too well what significantly more traffic on a very narrow street Cary Street will mean. Cary Street already handles several thousand vehicles each day, and if traffic from a relatively large complex of houses and apartments is added, the impact will be significant, and the quality of life for Cary Street residents diminished. There are surely traffic pattern alternatives, but town officials cannot afford to ignore or take lightly that aspect of the project.

There has also been expressed a concern over the potential height of commercial or residential structures in whatever plan emerges. The Planning Commission appears to be in favor of mitigating that concern with the revisions to a multiuse zoning amendment it’s now considering.

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These specific concerns — and there certainly will be others — are the reason public hearings are held and the reason, we always hope, that we have citizen members of Planning Commissions and Town Councils.

Unfortunately, opposition to any large project finds strength in numbers, and in attracting numbers, there is inevitably the catchall opponents’ position — we don’t want change of any kind.

Some of that opposition has evolved into a personal attack on the Luter family, who purchased Pierceville and plans to develop the property. There have been attacks on the motives of Joseph W. Luter III and his son, Joe IV, and it is those attacks that go too far.

Smithfield is a wonderful place to live. That’s why it draws so many eager newcomers. That’s been the case for more than half a century. Newcomers were not the first to recognize the town’s unique character, the mix of architectural styles that make it one of Virginia’s most attractive communities. They were, however, eager participants and often leaders in the ongoing battle to preserve the community.

Young couples fell in love with houses that were windows on the town’s past but were in danger of being lost. They bought these Grand Dames and began reversing their decline, sometimes with very limited budgets and a lot of sweat equity.

Some years later, the Town Council slowly began to embrace Smithfield’s uniqueness and — reluctantly, it must be said — adopted the town’s Historic District regulations to try and protect what was left.

While all this was going on, the town’s largest industry was undergoing major change as well. Under the leadership of Joe Luter III, it was becoming, in the late 1970s and 1980s, a national meat processing giant.

As the company began making significant profits, Joe Luter expressed the desire to do something for his hometown.

At the time, Main Street was a sad example of a dying downtown, a scene that was duplicated in thousands of little towns across the land. Broken sidewalks, vacant stores and property owners reluctant to poor good money after bad.

Joe Luter had grown up walking that street, shopping in its stores and watching Saturday cowboy matinees in its movie theater. He hated its demise as much as anyone alive at the time. I know his concern was real because we talked about it in his office the day he offered the first serious money he would contribute toward improving the town — a matching grant to beautify Main Street.

That project succeeded beyond the wildest dreams of anyone involved, and today Main Street is viewed throughout Virginia and beyond as one of the nation’s finest examples of small town renewal.

Joe Luter’s interest in the town continued, with the creation of Clontz Park, Windsor Castle Park, the YMCA and the ballfield complex on West Main Street, among his most visible contributions.

I’m not a developer and wouldn’t know where to begin calculating the profitability of a project, but my guess is that the Luters don’t expect Pierceville to be a profitable venture. Having dealt directly and indirectly with Joe Luter for almost 50 years, I know he is sincere in wanting to redevelop the west end of Main Street to become an extension of the Historic District’s commercial presence and, therefore, an asset to the town.

None of which gives Joe Luter or his son the right to expect the town and its residents to accept whatever they may want to build. In fact, the Planning Commission’s hesitation in adopting the zoning changes necessary for the project has already shown that probably won’t be the case. But if anyone has ever earned a seat at the table as the town’s future is planned, it’s Joe Luter.

Pierceville will be developed by someone, sometime. Personally, I believe that development will be significantly better if the Luters are involved.

The devil is always in the details, and vigorous public questioning is vital as a Pierceville project unfolds. But questioning Joe Luter’s love for this town diminishes the attackers far more than him and delegitimizes otherwise constructive criticism.


John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is