Column – Smithfield, IW have ‘managed’ growth for 60 years

Published 4:49 pm Tuesday, May 16, 2023

Those Smithfield and Isle of Wight residents who regularly sit in ever-increasing traffic congestion, and view what seems to be a frenzied building boom year after year, may think the term “managed growth” is the ultimate oxymoron of our modern world. 

But decades ago, some well-intentioned people in the town and county actually thought they could achieve just that.

It all began when a couple of decades of prosperity following World War II made middle-class Americans eager to share in what they saw as the American dream — a home of their own in a quiet neighborhood, easily reached by the economical automobiles that they were now able to buy.

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And those homes and neighborhoods, they believed, were not to be found in the cities. Instead, they were to be an easy commute away, out in the rural areas surrounding those cities. In Hampton Roads, those who dreamed and the developers who encouraged them looked to counties that included Nansemond, Isle of Wight and James City.

The signs of what was to come could be seen as early as 1960. While most local housing construction taking place then occurred in subdivisions adjacent to Smithfield, there was a smattering of construction here and there along existing roads in Isle of Wight. 

There was no zoning and no subdivision regulation in most rural counties. It was a wild and wooly time, an unregulated landscape that today’s developers could never dream of. 

Local officials, first in Smithfield, then in Isle of Wight, began talking about how to handle the growth that surely was on the horizon. 

The Smithfield Town Council hired its first town manager, James O. Branch, in 1961, and within six months had named a planning commission. By 1964, the town had drawn a land use map and adopted a zoning ordinance.

Isle of Wight was slower to come to the same realization and, perhaps ironically, it was the Isle of Wight Farm Bureau that nudged the Board of Supervisors.

Harry Dashiell Jr., who was president of the local Bureau and whose father, Harry Sr., was a county supervisor, signed a Farm Bureau letter urging the county to name a planning commission, enact zoning regulations and even consider hiring a county administrative person.

It took a while for the Bureau’s recommendations to take root at the courthouse, but slowly they did. The county enacted a basic subdivision ordinance in 1964, and in 1965 named N.R. Neblett, a retired oil company executive, as its executive secretary (the title changed later to county administrator). 

With a subdivision ordinance, the county could exert some control over lot sizes and setbacks but little else. The ultimate question of where houses could be built was pretty much up to a willing seller and buyer. Zoning, which would change that, came in 1970.

Smithfield officials, knowing the town was a magnet for growth, turned to a state law written in 1948, when few rural counties had any growth regulation. That law allowed towns to regulate any growth within two miles of their corporate boundaries.

Isle of Wight didn’t object to the town’s intervention initially, and even tipped its hat to town authority in the county’s first subdivision ordinance, the one adopted in 1964. But when it adopted a new subdivision ordinance in 1969, the county asserted control over the two-mile area. For the next six years, both county and town would attempt to regulate subdivisions in the area around, but outside of, Smithfield.

The two sides talked, mostly through their attorneys, for several years in what they said was an effort to reach a compromise, but ultimate authority over growth is a hard thing to share, and compromise was not to be, so in 1972, Smithfield asked the Isle of Wight Circuit Court to rule on who should have control over the two-mile area around the town. 

Developers, the town said in its petition, were faced with both county and town subdivision regulations that were different, and thus were placed in an untenable position. The town said it appeared the two sides would be unable to resolve the issue.

The county argued in response to the petition that allowing the town to have jurisdiction over county territory “would be an abridgement of the rights of (county) citizens.”

It would be more than two years before Judge James C. Godwin heard arguments by the town and county. During a hearing on the town’s petition, Godwin gave no hint who would end up with authority over the territory, but he made it clear that it would be either the town or county, not both.

“The people do not deserve that much government, and I assure you I am not going to give them that much government. One of you will have jurisdiction,” he said.

Four months later, Godwin wrote to the county and town attorneys that he was giving Isle of Wight jurisdiction over everything outside the town. 

And thus, zoning and subdivision regulations were born in Smithfield and Isle of Wight. From then on, generations of planning commission members, town council members, county supervisors and professionals in both town and county have talked, as they still do, of “managing” growth. How well they have succeeded is certainly in the eye of the beholder.


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