Column – Fresh eyes for Grange at 10Main project
Published 4:40 pm Tuesday, January 10, 2023
The Luter family’s proposed Grange at 10Main development, which took a big hit in the court of public opinion last fall, gets an important reset in 2023.
Town and county elected leadership gets a “do-over” after their secret discussions preceding approval of taxpayer investment in the project snapped citizens out of a wait-and-see mode and fueled widespread suspicion that Grange was a done deal before people even knew any details.
It was as if no lessons were learned from 2021’s Mallory Scott Farm PR debacle.
First the Smithfield Town Council, then the Isle of Wight County Board of Supervisors went behind closed doors in October to discuss a combined $2.8 million to fund a new farmers market fronting the proposed residential and commercial development on the former Pierceville property. To make such a pledge before the Luters had even submitted their formal plans to the town unnecessarily riled an already-suspicious citizenry.
The timing couldn’t have been worse for then-Smithfield Mayor Carter Williams, whom voters a few weeks later would toss from the Town Council in large part because of a perception that he valued the interests of developers over the citizenry’s.
With 2023’s arrival comes a chance to reassure skeptics that the Grange will get an objective, thorough vetting that is fair to the developer but accountable to taxpayers. Joe Luter IV has filed his formal application for the rezoning and special-use permits necessary to build the development as he envisions it.
Two requests are extraordinary:
- A waiver to allow 31 multifamily residential units per acre, nearly triple the town’s current maximum of 12.
- Special permission for a 55-foot, four-story building – 20 feet taller than the town’s current limit of 35 feet.
It should be noted that developers routinely ask for more than they think they will get and that is necessary for a plan to be viable. That’s likely the case here.
According to a consultant’s report accompanying the application, taxpayer investment wouldn’t end with the farmers market. Luter wants the town and county to “provide an economic development incentive” for a hotel as part of the development and to “purchase the development’s infrastructure and utilities through a participation agreement.”
Those requested commitments need to be quickly quantified and disclosed for public comment before the town and county boards take any votes.
The project is an early test for Town Council newcomers Jeff Brooks and Steve Bowman, who ran on platforms of transparency, accountability and more citizen involvement in major growth and development decisions. If they govern like they campaigned, citizens will get a voice beyond the mandatory public hearings that are mere window dressing when elected officials have their minds made up. Bowman, chosen by his colleagues to succeed Williams as mayor, can be especially influential in the process.
There’s much to like about the Grange project. Some will oppose it regardless, but elected leadership has a chance to fix its flaws and earn the public’s confidence.
Steve Stewart is publisher of The Smithfield Times. His email address is email@example.com.