Too dense for downtown? Smithfield planners debate traffic, height of ‘Grange’ development

Published 6:37 pm Friday, May 26, 2023

At least one member of Smithfield’s Planning Commission says he won’t support four-story apartment buildings as a component of the Grange at 10Main development proposed for the western edge of the town’s historic district. Others say they aren’t bothered by the height.

Developer Joseph Luter IV is seeking what would be the town’s first use of a new planned mixed-use development, or “PMUD,” zoning on behalf of his father, former Smithfield Foods Chairman Joseph Luter III.

Luter III purchased and razed the former Little’s Supermarket and 1730s-era Pierceville farmhouse in 2020 in hopes of turning the nearly 57 acres into a 304-home development that would include a home for the town’s farmers market, a hotel, three- and four-story apartment buildings, single-family and duplex homes and commercial space. The Planning Commission, which is tasked with issuing a recommendation on the rezoning request to Smithfield’s Town Council, began discussing Luter IV’s application in April and has continued its deliberations by meeting twice this month.

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Luter IV’s application includes a requested waiver of the town’s 35-foot maximum building height to allow heights of up to 39 feet for the three-story apartment buildings and 50 feet for the four-story ones. The hotel, while only three stories, would be 42 feet tall.

Luter IV has proposed modeling the apartment buildings after historic buildings in Charleston, South Carolina.

“I don’t care what it looks like; I just think that’s not the appropriate setting,” said Planning Commissioner Dr. Thomas Pope at a May 24 work session.

Commissioner Raynard Gibbs, however, isn’t bothered by the height, and would rather see the town work with Luter IV than someone else.

“This developer we know, he’s home-grown,” Gibbs said.

Pope, while objecting to the height of the apartments, also has said that he prefers that the property be developed by Luter.

Luter III has made contributions to the town before, 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. Luter III has offered $1 million and land for the farmers market, conditioned on the town and Isle of Wight County jointly putting up $2.8 million, which they agreed to do last year. The Luters also plan to request reimbursement for the cost of extending roads and utilities to “public” areas, and an “economic development incentive” for the hotel.

“Everything he’s ever built is first class,” Commissioner Mike Swecker said during the work session.

Pope says he’s concerned about setting a precedent that could potentially inspire other developers to propose four-story buildings in the town’s historic district, though Town Attorney Bill Riddick says if they do, the Planning Commission would be under no obligation to approve them.

Luter IV contends the four-story apartment buildings are an “economic necessity,” and that putting in an additional three-story building to make up the difference would drive his costs too high.

“The hotel doesn’t bother me,” Pope noted. “If it’s three stories, I don’t care if it’s 42 feet.”

Commissioner Jim Yoko is also concerned about the traffic the Grange would generate, noting a traffic study included with Luter IV’s application had estimated over 2,700 daily vehicular trips in and out of the development.

Luter IV and his design team contend the traffic estimate is a worst-case scenario that will be tempered by the planned community’s walkability. Yoko, however, contends much of the traffic for the proposed farmers market will come from out-of-town vendors and visitors, some of whom may choose to come and go via the development’s Grace Street connector rather than its main entrance and exit onto Main Street.

Land Planning Solutions President Melissa Venable, whom Luter IV hired to assist with planning and engineering for the project, said approximately 300 parking spaces had been allocated for the market, making that the rough maximum for market-related traffic.

Commissioner Bill Davidson said he’s concerned that the 13 speakers at the commission’s May 9 public hearing, most of whom were from the downtown area, are not an accurate sampling of views held by the majority of the town’s roughly 8.800 residents, and may be creating a “not in my backyard” narrative.

“There are people who are in favor of this project,” said Commission Chairman Charles Bryan.

Luter IV estimates that if the Planning Commission votes in June and the Town Council upholds the commissioners’ recommendation in a July or August vote, construction of the farmers market could begin as early as fall 2024.