Grange skeptics air concerns to Smithfield planners; developer says his dad getting impatient

Published 6:15 pm Thursday, May 11, 2023

The proposed Grange at 10Main development on the western edge of Smithfield’s historic district drew objections, but no vote, at the Planning Commission’s hour-long May 9 public hearing.

None of the 13 speakers supported the project as-is. The commissioners themselves expressed similar sentiments, but postponed voting on their recommendation until at least June.

The commissioners will continue their discussion at a May 24 work session. The meeting will begin at 6:30 p.m. in The Smithfield Center, and will be open to the public, but won’t include a public comment segment.

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“If we had to make a decision on this right now, tonight, I think that decision would be a ‘no,’” said Commissioner Julia Hillegass.

The commissioners, however, say they’d rather work with Grange developer Joseph Luter IV than see the project scrapped and the land sold to someone else, which Luter told commissioners is indeed a possibility if there are more delays.

Luter, the son of former Smithfield Foods Chairman Joseph Luter III, filed an application in December seeking mixed-use zoning for the development, which is named for its location at Route 10 and Main Street. The elder Luter purchased and razed the former Little’s Supermarket and 1730s-era Pierceville farmhouse in 2020, proposing in 2021 to turn the nearly 57 acres into a development that would include a permanent home for the town’s farmers market, a hotel, three- and four-story apartment buildings, single-family and duplex homes and commercial space.

“My father’s fully prepared to let this land sit. … He’ll let somebody else buy it,” Luter IV said. “This process is two years long now and I can’t tell you how frustrated he is with how long it’s taking.”

Under state law, the planners have until July 20 to make a formal recommendation to Smithfield’s Town Council. If no vote is taken by that date, the application will go to the council for a final decision with an automatic recommendation for approval.

The hearing began with Commissioner Randy Pack, who also serves on the Town Council, leaving the room. He recused himself last year from all matters related to the project, disclosing that he and his brother, Brian, have an interest in running a restaurant in the proposed market building. The Pack brothers co-own and operate Smithfield Station restaurant, hotel and marina and Surry Seafood Co. restaurant and hotel in Surry County, and are developing a similar project named 37 North at Fort Monroe in Hampton.

The amount of taxpayer dollars that would fund portions of the Grange was a sticking point for six speakers.

In October, the Town Council and Isle of Wight County supervisors each voted to contribute up to $1.4 million toward the cost of building the indoor/outdoor farmers market building. A 2022 fiscal impact analysis submitted with the Luters’ application states they’re seeking an unspecified “economic development incentive” for the hotel. Luter IV further stated during his April appearance in front of the commissioners that he plans to seek “reimbursement” for the costs associated with roads, utilities and parking that would serve the “public” components of the Grange.

“In this challenging economic climate, why is any taxpayer money being used to subsidize a commercial development?” asked Grace Street resident Mary Ellen Bebermeyer.

Though Luter IV has yet to specify what dollar amount of reimbursements would be requested from the county or town, nor what impact the “economic development incentive” would have on the tax dollars the Grange is estimated to generate, he asserted at the May 9 meeting that the cumulative contributions would be “significantly less than the economic benefit” of the project.

“This project more than pays for itself. … We are not asking taxpayers to subsidize this project,” Luter IV said.

The fiscal impact analysis, as of 2022, estimated a 2-to-1 benefit-to-cost ratio for the county and a roughly 4-to-1 benefit-to-cost ratio for the town.

The analysis by Ted Figura Consulting predicts $1.1 million in annual revenue to the county by the development’s 2030  “stabilization year,” compared to $562,400 in annual costs. For the town, it predicts $725,000 in annual revenue compared to $254,975 in yearly costs.

Luter IV said if the requested rezoning is approved, he and his development team would ask for the requested incentive and reimbursement at a later date.

Increased traffic was another common concern among speakers.

“I have to back out of my driveway onto Cary Street. … It’s getting to the point where I can’t do that,” said Bob Dolensky.

Cary is one of the downtown streets that would connect to the Grange. The latest site plans for the project have also added parking by eliminating the direct access from Grace Street onto Main Street, and instead would require motorists traveling from Grace onto Main to drive through the heart of the development where the market and retail stores would be located.

Commissioner Dr. Thomas Pope said he would rather see additional three-story apartment buildings than to “set the precedent” by allowing any four-story ones. He and Commissioner Bill Davidson also want to see data on the cumulative impact of the Grange, which is projected to bring in roughly 110 school-age children, and every other development currently proposed and approved on the capacity of the county’s public schools.

“I don’t see how we can make any kind of decision until we have that information in hand,” Davidson said.

Planning Commission Chairman Charles Bryan, however, called the proposed Grange the “best opportunity” to develop the former Little’s and Pierceville sites.

Luter III has made contributions to the town’s beautification efforts over the decades, including $5 million toward the development of Windsor Castle Park in 2009 and 10 years earlier, in 1999, when he offered $500,000 toward the building of a new Smithfield Little Theatre to replace the old converted cotton gin that was demolished when Smithfield Foods built its new corporate headquarters on Commerce Street. Donations by Luter III and a local bank, along with tax dollars, also funded the $4 million Joseph Luter Jr. Sports Complex, named for Luter III’s father.

Pope called a previous developer’s 2014 proposal to build 151 homes on the site “1% of the quality” of the 304-unit Grange.

“I’m really afraid that another developer is not going to care, and is just going to slap something in here, and I personally do not want to make this developer upset that he walks away from this table,” Pope said.