Smithfield Town Council candidates debate
Published 4:08 pm Friday, October 28, 2022
Five candidates vying for four seats on Smithfield’s Town Council debated at an Oct. 26 forum at The Smithfield Center 13 days ahead of the Nov. 8 election.
Mayor Carter Williams and council members Wayne Hall and Valerie Butler are running for reelection, while challengers Jeff Brooks and Steve Bowman are seeking their first terms.
Smithfield Times Publisher Steve Stewart moderated the forum, posing just under 20 questions to each candidate. Several centered on recent controversial council decisions, among them the council’s Oct. 5 vote to commit up to $1.4 million toward moving the Smithfield Farmers Market to former Smithfield Foods Chairman Joseph W. Luter III’s proposed “Grange at 10Main” development at Route 10 and Main Street.
Luter has offered land and $1 million toward the construction of a permanent building to house the market, conditioned on the town and Isle of Wight County jointly contributing $2.7 million. The county voted Oct. 20 to make its own $1.4 million contribution.
“Where else are you going to put it?” Williams asked, noting the market’s lease of the Bank of Southside Virginia’s parking lot will expire in March and to date has not been renewed.
Bowman said he is “open to any alternatives,” noting $1.4 million is “a lot of money,” but said he wasn’t sure “what an alternative would be other than that location, if you’re looking to keep the downtown flavor.”
“I am not opposed to the farmers market moving down there; what I am opposed to is using taxpayer money to fund a private development,” Brooks said, noting that if the market’s lease of the bank parking lot indeed ends, the town will need an alternative site much sooner than the years it would take for the Grange to be constructed.
“I have been spending a lot of time at the farmers market,” Butler said, noting vendors “seem to be very excited about moving the farmers market to this new project.”
Hall called Luter’s proposal for the market “a win-win for the county, the town and the citizens” based on the development’s anticipated return on investment.
According to a fiscal impact study prepared by Ted Figura Consulting for Luter’s LSMP LLC holding company, the development as a whole – including the proposed hotel, commercial spaces, single-family homes and apartments – would generate annual revenues of nearly $670,000 for the town, and annual costs of $260,500, resulting in a 2.57-to-1 benefit-to-cost ratio during the development’s “stabilization period.”
The three incumbents each said they saw no need for a tax increase to fund the town’s contribution to the Grange, nor another $1 million contribution they voted on Oct. 5 to spend on upgrades to the Joseph W. Luter Jr. Sports Complex. The two challengers each said they would not favor a tax increase to support either project.
Other questions revisited the council’s 2021 decision to approve an 812-home Mallory Pointe development at the Mallory Scott Farm, over the objection of hundreds of residents.
Butler acknowledged having voted in favor of Virginia Beach-based developer Napolitano Homes’ requested rezoning, stating she’d done so based on the developer’s pledge to bring affordable housing to Smithfield. This would be housing priced for police, firefighters, teachers and other workers, “not Section 8 housing,” Butler said, referring to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s voucher program for low-income families.
Hall, who voted against the rezoning, said he’d done so on the grounds that a proposed pump station to serve the new development was “going to cost the town somewhere around $3.5 million,” since Napolitano hadn’t agreed in writing to pay for the upgrade.
Williams, who voted in favor of the rezoning, countered that Napolitano was in fact “putting in one heck of a lot of infrastructure,” and agreed with Butler that “affordable housing is needed.”
Bowman called the rezoning decision “right” but its timing “wrong,” stating that developments should be evaluated based on “compliance” and “capacity” — compliance with the town’s Comprehensive Plan and capacity in terms of whether existing schools, police staffing and other infrastructure could sustain the additional demand.
Brooks then said he would “never have voted for that development,” contending it will “change the face” of the town.
The conversation then turned to the town’s decision in 2020 to end curbside recycling, and whether any of the candidates would vote to bring it back.
“I would love to see curbside recycling come back, but … recycling is on its way out, so I don’t see it happening anytime soon,” Hall said.
“I was just devastated when we had to give it up,” Williams said, restating town officials’ contention from 2020 that a majority of Smithfield’s recyclables were ending up at the Wheelabrator waste-to-energy plant in Portsmouth, where they were getting burned rather than repurposed. The town’s recycling contractor, Bay Disposal, disputed the claim, contending at the time that only 30% of its recycling collection throughout Hampton Roads had been going to Wheelabrator.
China, Williams noted, had chosen to stop accepting most recyclables from the United States in 2018, causing a nationwide shift in the end markets for collected items.
“I would love to see recycling,” Bowman said, noting his past environmental science work as Virginia’s commissioner of marine resources, but “unless someone can show me that we do have an available place to recycle … at the present time I don’t see it happening.”
Brooks agreed that markets have changed, noting his Virginia Beach-based business had gone from receiving money for its collected recyclables to having to pay to have them hauled away.
He did, however, note “there’s a petition” by Virginia Beach-based Happy Planet Recycling pledging to begin servicing individual Isle of Wight customers at a cost of $165 to $220 per year if at least 200 county residents sign up. The Smithfield Times previously reported on the petition in September, which is still online at www.happyplanetrw.com/preorder-form.
“I’m willing to pay for it,” Brooks said.
The amount of recyclables said to be incinerated rather than repurposed was Butler’s “deciding factor” in her 2020 vote to end curbside recycling in Smithfield, she said, adding, “Unless things change, recycling is probably done within the town of Smithfield.”
The candidates agreed on a number of issues, among them the need to repair the crumbling sidewalks on Grace Street, to start livestreaming Town Council meetings, and moving forward with the town’s portion of a bicycle and pedestrian trail that’s to span from Carrollton’s Nike Park to Smithfield’s Windsor Castle Park.
Isle of Wight County completed its 3.1-mile portion from Nike Park to the corner of Battery Park Road and South Church Street in 2021 for $8.6 million. Smithfield is seeking $17.8 million in Virginia Department of Transportation funding to extend the path down South Church Street and across the Cypress Creek Bridge, with the submitted proposal calling for the widening of South Church Street to accommodate the trail’s needed stormwater infrastructure.
“I’ve gone on record in support of the improvements to South Church Street,” Bowman said, calling the proposed trail “good for the economy” and “good for physical health.”
“Although I do not want to spend that kind of money, since we’ve already started a commitment, it needs to go through,” Brooks said, though he and Williams both acknowledged the county’s portion doesn’t see much use.
If approved under VDOT’s Smart Scale cost-versus-benefit formula, the project would be 100% funded with state money and added to VDOT’s six-year road improvements plan.
On the issue of transparency, Bowman asserted that discussions closed to the public should be used “very judiciously and only as a last resort,” stating he would have opposed going into the Oct. 5 closed session that preceded the council’s vote to put $1.4 million toward the “Grange” market and another $1 million toward the Luter Sports Complex upgrades.
The council had stated only “contract negotiations” as its reason for entering the Oct. 5 closed session.
“What just happened here several weeks back I highly disagree with,” said Brooks.
“Negotiations on real estate” or “a personnel issue” will prompt the council to go into closed sessions, Butler said. All three incumbents said they would defer to Town Attorney William Riddick III to advise them on if or when closed sessions are needed.
“He’s been the town attorney for probably 30 years; he’s very good at what he does,” Hall added. “He will call us and tell us in these closed sessions if we’re out of line.”
“I don’t like to go into closed sessions; I never have liked it,” Williams said. “But I just have to follow along with the town attorney or the town manager. … A lot of times we go into closed session, we don’t really know what we’re going in there about, but it’s not very many closed sessions that we go into.”
Each of the five candidates denied having any financial ties in Smithfield that would present a conflict of interest for them as Town Council members.
During closing statements, Williams named the Grange as the town’s most pressing issue, but predicted Smithfield would look “pretty much like it is now” in 10 years. Brooks and Butler each named “controlled growth” as the town’s most pressing issue. Bowman urged the town to stay within the guidelines of its Comprehensive Plan.
Smithfield is “going to be a little bit bigger,” Hall said, “but I would still like to see the same friendliness and charm that we experience now.”