Editorial – Send us your Grange questions

Published 6:42 pm Friday, May 26, 2023

As a follow-up to last week’s editorial on our offer to host a public forum on the proposed Grange at 10Main development on the western edge of the historic district, Town of Smithfield elected and appointed officials formally declined an invitation to participate, citing advice from Town Attorney William Riddick.

Developer Joseph Luter IV had agreed to participate only if town officials participated, so there will be no forum, unfortunately. Our invitation to host it stands just in case there’s a change of heart.

While we respect the town’s decision, we continue to urge the town, county and developer to be more transparent about a project that has been characterized as transformative for Smithfield. 

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The gist of a letter from Riddick to Mayor Steve Bowman is that hundreds of pages of documents on the town website and a statutory public hearing process for rezoning and conditional use permits for the project are sufficient for citizens to inform themselves about the Grange.

If you choose to look at this matter as strictly a zoning decision, one could argue with a straight face that Riddick is right. But town and county officials, through their actions, have made this much more than a zoning consideration and raised many more questions than have been answered.

An unprecedented joint meeting between the developer and town and county elected officials in December 2021, with no taxpayers watching, created a cloud of suspicion that lingers nearly 18 months later. Both the town and county boards subsequently met in closed sessions before committing $2.4 million of taxpayers’ money to a project that town officials now say they must be objective about. Riddick wrote that forum participation “might be seen as acting in a biased manner, either in favor or against the project.” 

Truly objective elected leadership wouldn’t have committed public money to one of the Grange’s signature facilities, a new farmers market, before the developer had even submitted his formal plans to the town. To this day, taxpayers remain in the dark about other details of their proposed involvement, such as reimbursing the developer for infrastructure costs and providing an “economic development incentive” for the Grange’s hotel.

Absent a forum, the Times will continue to work hard to get answers to your questions and add a layer of transparency that has been missing. Email your questions to editor@smithfieldtimes.com. We’ll pose them to the appropriate people and let you know what we learn.