Emails show Grange involvement by town, county officials
Published 7:03 pm Tuesday, July 25, 2023
An April 17 email thread between Grange at 10Main developer Joseph Luter IV and Judy Winslow, director of Smithfield’s and Isle of Wight County’s shared tourism department, references her “offline discussions” with Planning Commission members a week after the eight-member body began discussing Luter’s rezoning application.
“Progress is being made,” Winslow told Luter in the exchange, which was among hundreds of emails obtained and reviewed by The Smithfield Times in an effort to document involvement — and in some cases support — by appointed and elected officials as plans for the controversial mixed-use project at Route 10 and Main Street took shape.
Winslow said her contact with planning commissioners related only to their questions about a new farmers market proposed for the development and was not an attempt to influence their votes on rezoning and permits for the bigger project. An attempt by a government official to influence their vote would be a “bad look,” an expert on government ethics told the Times.
Another thread between Luter IV and Winslow, this one from 2022, references Winslow’s having brokered talks between two existing downtown businesses and Luter concerning their potential relocation to the market building that would anchor the 304-home, mixed-use development.
A 2021 email exchange shows Winslow helping arrange a conference call involving Luter and a Lynchburg-based hotelier about the company potentially operating a hotel at the Grange.
The emails, spanning from 2020 to last month, were obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests.
Randolph-Macon College political science professor Richard Meagher, an expert on government ethics, said there’s nothing unusual about public officials being boosters of a proposed project.
“Elected and appointed officials tend to view any development as a good thing,” he said. “Urban politics scholars label this phenomenon the ‘growth machine.’”
Luter’s father, former Smithfield Foods Chairman Joseph Luter III, purchased and razed the former Little’s supermarket and 1730s-era Pierceville farm in 2020. Luter IV, earlier this year, filed a rezoning application proposing a permanent home for the town’s tourism-run farmers market, a restaurant, retail space, three- and four-story apartment buildings and single-family and duplex homes for the nearly 57-acre site.
Smithfield’s Planning Commission, on June 13, voted to forward Luter’s rezoning application and five of the six requested special use permits to the Town Council with favorable recommendations. Its members, however, voted 4-3 to recommend denial of the sixth, which requests a waiver of the town’s 35-foot maximum building height to allow the hotel and four-story apartments.
Dr. Thomas Pope, one of the four who voted in favor of the denial recommendation, clarified at the commission’s July meeting that he was only opposed to the four-story apartments, not the 39-foot-tall three-story apartments or the 42-foot-tall, three-story hotel.
The Town Council is to hold a public hearing and possibly vote on the Grange application on Aug. 1.
“Planning and zoning boards are supposed to be the one place where a local government’s review is supposed to remain neutral and even skeptical; these folks are the ones tasked with making recommendations to the local government that hopefully ensure the public good,” Meagher said.
While he contends it would be a “bad look” for a public official to be seen as trying to influence a Planning Commission decision, that’s not what happened, Winslow contends.
Winslow, asked about the “offline discussions,” told The Smithfield Times she “specifically and deliberately” tried not to give her opinion or influence any Planning Commission member regarding the Grange project as a whole. One such discussion, she said, was prompted by Pope having called her to ask questions about the farmers market component. Her remark that “progress is being made,” Winslow said, was in reference to her belief that she had successfully answered Pope’s questions about the farmers market.
Winslow said she had discussions with Commissioner Bill Davidson as well outside of a public meeting, but said Pope was the only one who had “any further questions at this point that they thought were apropos to their decision-making process.”
Winslow’s role in recruiting tenants for the Grange’s market building, she said, stems from the town not having its own dedicated economic development recruiter.
Growing the town’s “tourism product,” or appeal to visitors, by bringing economic development to the town “is part of our tourism mission,” Winslow said.
Her job also entails keeping everyone, including Luter IV, in the loop regarding the latest discussions on the proposed farmers market component, Winslow said.
Smithfield Mayor Steve Bowman said he isn’t concerned about anything that may have occurred prior to the scheduled Aug. 1 Town Council hearing, describing the conversations as being either “advisory or personal opinion.”
“I will conduct the hearing in a fair and impartial manner and make my decision based on the facts and comments presented at the August 1 hearing,” Bowman said. “What others have said prior to this hearing is irrelevant.”
Meagher agreed that a town official simply answering a commissioner’s question outside of a public meeting “seems fairly innocent,” though it’s “not the best practice in terms of transparency.”
Situations like these are “complicated by the scope and scale of town politics – everyone knows everyone, and it can seem easy for even well-meaning public servants to call the person they know in the city government who can answer important questions they have,” Meagher said.
The Grange’s early days: a timeline
Winslow’s involvement in the Grange, according to email records, began on Jan. 11, 2021, with her sending an introductory message to Luter IV and receiving in response an invitation to meet with him and his father at Aberdeen Farm, a private events venue owned by the Luters.
A “design workshop,” as it was described in a May 2021 tourism report, followed on April 19, also at Aberdeen Farm. Not all of Winslow’s ideas came to fruition.
In her introductory email to Luter IV, Winslow had proposed an outdoor amphitheater and “new town hall” be included in the development.
On Aug. 9, 2021, Luter IV wrote to Kevin Clark, senior principal at Historical Concepts, an Atlanta-based firm retained by the Luters to create an early master plan for the Grange, that Smithfield Foods was “out” on the idea of buying The Smithfield Center at North Church Street, which would have entailed moving events, including Town Council and Planning Commission meetings, to a new building at the Grange.
By Aug. 26 of that year, Luter IV had written to former mayor Williams and Town Councilman Randy Pack that Historical Concepts would be redesigning the master plan to focus on the proposed farmers market building and hotel due to the uncertainty surrounding plans for a new town hall.
At that time, the hotel was to be much smaller – 15 to 50 rooms rather than the currently proposed 70. Winslow’s Lynchburg connection, Luter notes in his Aug. 26, 2021, email, has expertise in running smaller “boutique” hotels. Winslow, asked by Luter IV “who we can attract to Smithfield,” recommends in a Sept. 1, 2021, email that the hotel be priced at $149 to $199 for corporate stays and $199 to $249 for leisure depending on room type.
In the same Sept. 21 email, Winslow tells Luter IV that “offline discussions” between herself and Town Council members had raised concerns over how the town would monetize the then-proposed amphitheater.
Sometime prior to May 12, 2021, when former Smithfield Planning Director John Settle left the role, he, Winslow, Pack and Nicole Talton of Isle of Wight County’s Department of Economic Development appeared in a promotional video for the Grange.
Settle and Winslow each talked about Smithfield as a community in general in the four-minute video, which Luter IV showed at the April 11, 2023, Planning Commission meeting. Pack, who was credited in the video as one of the owners of the Smithfield Station restaurant, hotel and marina rather than in his role as a councilman, asserted the Luters’ contributions to the town over the years have “made Smithfield what it is.”
“Development does not mean the death of our wonderful community or town; it means that we have to grow in a way that is thoughtful,” Talton said in the video.
Talton, though credited in the video as an Economic Development employee, was not involved as a “representative of the county or my department,” said Economic Development Director Chris Morello.
Morello recalls Talton was “asked to be interviewed by others, independent of any consultation with me, mainly because she is a resident of the county and involved a lot in the community.”
Winslow recalls being asked by the Luters and their design team to “talk about how special the Town of Smithfield is.”
Pack, who has stated – and email records confirm – he’s in talks with Luter IV to open a restaurant in the market building, recused himself in early 2022 from participating in discussions or voting on the Grange as a council member or the council’s liaison to the Planning Commission.
In a Nov. 3, 2021, email to Luter IV following publication of a Times article on the Luters’ plans, Morello takes issue with Pack’s having told the Times the county’s economic development staff “has attended meetings with the project’s developers.”
“I have had zero involvement in the planning meetings,” Morello wrote to Luter IV, clarifying that Economic Development Authority Chairman Carroll Keen had attended a meeting but did not attend “on my behalf.”
“You often find developers working hand-in-hand with local officials to help smooth the way for a project,” Meagher said. “It’s far from ideal, for what I hope are obvious reasons, but it works that way in Richmond as much as it does in Smithfield.”
Winslow clarified that her discussions have been “preliminary” and contingent on “if this development comes to fruition.”
Grange plans go public
The first publicly advertised discussion of the Grange came on Dec. 22, 2021, when members of Smithfield’s Town Council and Isle of Wight County’s Board of Supervisors met jointly with the Luters at the Smithfield Center.
Asked by the Times whether such a joint meeting with a developer was unprecedented, Assistant County Administrator Don Robertson, who’s been employed by Isle of Wight County in various administrative roles since 1990, said he couldn’t recall any prior developer being granted a special joint meeting of the two governing bodies, but noted there are “some aspects of the Grange project that are unique,” namely the Luters’ offer of land and $1 million toward the construction of the farmers market building contingent on the town and county putting up at least $2.7 million of the cost.
Town Attorney William Riddick, who’s also been in his role for decades, said he too was unaware of any joint council-supervisors meetings to discuss a developer’s request for rezoning, to include the Grange, contending the Dec. 22, 2021, meeting had been limited to the farmers market component.
“There was no discussion about the details of the proposed development other than in general terms,” Riddick said.
Both bodies agreed to the Luters’ terms last October, each committing up to $1.4 million in public money.
There have been other developments in the county that have “necessitated significant dialogue” between the town, county and a developer, Robertson said, most notably in 2021 when Smithfield received and approved Virginia Beach-based developer Napolitano Homes’ application for the 812-home Mallory Pointe development off Battery Park Road at the former Mallory Scott Farm.
Mallory Pointe, Robertson noted, had entailed negotiations between the town and county to voluntarily adjust Smithfield’s incorporated boundaries for the purpose of accommodating Napolitano’s request that the entire development be located within the town limits.
Email threads indicate Luter IV and his design team have also participated in at least three conference calls with Smithfield Town Manager Michael Stallings this year, including one on Jan. 9 that included County Administrator Randy Keaton for the stated purpose of discussing a “cost participation agreement.”
Luter IV, in April, told the Planning Commission he planned to request “reimbursement” for the cost of extending roads, sidewalks and utilities to the “public” areas of the Grange, but would not elaborate when pressed by Pope for a dollar amount. The same day as the Jan. 9 conference call, a Virginia Beach-based firm working with Luter IV estimated that Smithfield and Isle of Wight County could collectively owe more than $7 million as their share of what Luter IV had termed a “public-private partnership.”
Luter IV told the Times in May that he expects the taxpayer-funded portion, which he says will come from revenues generated by the Grange, won’t be anywhere near that high, but declined to provide an updated estimate. He told the Times earlier this month that an exact dollar amount won’t be provided to the Town Council either ahead of the Aug. 1 public hearing and possible final vote.
Stallings and Keaton each told the Times it’s not uncommon for town and county managers to meet with applicants as they develop their application packages.
Keaton said he’s had “more calls and meetings with developers about other projects in the county” than ones devoted to the Grange and its proposed farmers market.
Stallings recalls meeting with Napolitano Homes “several times” prior to the Town Council’s 2021 approval of the Mallory Pointe development.
“We will typically meet with a developer or their engineers to determine how best to serve their project with water and sewer, and will also meet to discuss zoning compliance as well,” Stallings said.