Hillegass rejoins Smithfield Planning Commission as eighth member

Published 4:29 pm Monday, February 13, 2023

A month after declining to reappoint Julia Hillegass to Smithfield’s Planning Commission, the Town Council voted to reverse course and name her to a newly created eighth seat on the formerly seven-member advisory body.

The council had reappointed Dr. Thomas Pope to the Planning Commission on Jan. 3 and had named James Yoko and Bill Davidson to the commission as replacements for Hillegass and Michael Torrey, whose terms were set to expire Jan. 31. But in doing so, the council inadvertently overlooked a provision in its own zoning ordinance.

Hillegass had served as the Planning Commission’s liaison to the town’s Board of Historic and Architectural Review, a separate seven-member body that reviews proposed exterior changes in the town’s historic district.

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Per the zoning ordinance, one member of the Planning Commission must also serve on the BHAR. But in January, the council had reappointed BHAR Chairman Trey Gwaltney and member Judith Lally, leaving no open seats for any of the new Planning Commission members to fill the liaison role.

On the recommendation of Town Attorney Bill Riddick, the council voted unanimously on Feb. 7 to change the zoning ordinance to specify there be “at least seven but not more than eight” members of the Planning Commission.

A subcommittee consisting of council members Mike Smith and Jeff Brooks, whom Mayor Steve Bowman had tasked with naming the Planning Commission’s liaison to the BHAR, then nominated Hillegass for the eighth seat. Hillegass’ term on the BHAR runs through 2026.

Hillegass, speaking to The Smithfield Times by phone the next day, said she was happy to be able to serve another term.

While Torrey had asked to step down, Hillegass said she hadn’t expressed an unwillingness to continue serving in January, but didn’t specifically ask to be reappointed either.

The final vote the council took on the matter was to recommend that the Planning Commission change its bylaws to reflect the new eighth position. While the council can recommend changes to the commission’s bylaws, only the commissioners themselves can vote to change them.

Bowman called the situation a “debacle” and acknowledged the January vote that led up to it had been one of the first decisions he and the other council members had made since his taking office at the start of the year. To prevent a reoccurrence, he said, Riddick will be tasked with vetting nominees to boards and commissions for any potential conflicts with the town’s laws.

“I just want to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” Bowman said.

With eight members, any decision by the Planning Commission will now need at least five votes. A tie vote will fail.