Grange vote delayed to September

Published 11:52 pm Tuesday, August 1, 2023

Editor’s note: This story was updated at 12:23 p.m. on Aug. 2 with additional details from the Aug. 1 meeting.

Smithfield’s Town Council will wait until September to vote on the proposed Grange at 10Main development.

Mayor Steve Bowman, despite pushing for an Aug. 1 vote at the council’s July 24 meeting, joined with Councilman Mike Smith and others in delaying a vote on mixed-use zoning for the 304-home community proposed for the edge of the town’s historic district at Route 10 and Main Street.

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Councilwoman Renee Rountree had made a motion, seconded by Vice Mayor Valerie Butler, to approve developer Joseph Luter IV’s requested rezoning when Smith made a substitute motion to table the matter. Smith’s motion was seconded by Councilman Wayne Hall.

Smith contended the council would be doing a “disservice” to Luter and the public by voting late into the evening on Aug. 1 and potentially seeing the proposed development be rejected.

“It is workable,” Smith said, but “can be better,” acknowledging that eventually “something is going to happen” at the 57-acre site formerly home to the now-demolished Little’s supermarket and 1730s Pierceville farm Luter’s father, former Smithfield Foods Chairman Joseph Luter III, purchased and razed in 2020.

Rountree cast the sole “nay” vote on Smith’s motion.

Rountree’s original motion to approve mixed-use zoning for the Grange came at roughly 11:20 p.m. following 2½ hours of citizen comments by 34 speakers, 23 in opposition. Nine said they supported the project and two said they saw benefits and drawbacks to what’s currently proposed.

A building intended to house a restaurant, retailer and provide a permanent home for the town’s currently seasonal farmers market would anchor the Grange. Luter IV’s submitted plans also call for a hotel, three- and four-story apartment buildings, detached commercial space, single-family and duplex homes and five short-term rental cottages.

Bowman, Rountree and Butler each say they’re ready to support the project as-is. Smith, Councilman Jeff Brooks and Councilman Wayne Hall are not.

The council’s seventh member, Councilman Randy Pack, recused himself and left the meeting ahead of the public hearing due to his business dealings with the Luters. He’s in negotiations to run the restaurant and rooftop bar proposed for the farmers market building.

“I just don’t see the public support for this,” said Brooks, whose wife, Elizabeth, was one of the citizens who spoke in opposition to the rezoning.

Hall said his biggest issue was with Luter IV’s request to waive the town’s 35-foot maximum building height to allow the hotel and apartments. The waiver is one of six special use permits requested in the Grange rezoning application. Luter IV has also requested a land use map amendment.

The other five permits, if approved, would allow multifamily housing on principal, waive the 12-unit-per-acre maximum density for multifamily housing, waive parking and loading requirements, waive yard setback requirements and allow the short-term rental cottages.

Each of the eight requests would need at least four votes to pass.

Main Street resident Chris Torre, another opposition speaker at the hearing, contends the development’s proposed connections to Grace and Main streets would turn Grace into “a major thoroughfare” and Main into a “Los Angeles-class traffic snarl.” A traffic study by McPherson Consulting, as of February, had estimated the development would generate roughly 2,700 incoming vehicular trips and another 2,700 outgoing trips daily. A March letter from the Virginia Department of Transportation to the town agreed that the Grange would likely generate a rough total of 5,500 daily vehicular trips.

Jason Witcher, a Grace Street resident, read aloud a letter from Preservation Virginia, a nonprofit organization, calling for a more thorough examination of the Pierceville site for archeological artifacts.

Among the speakers in favor of the Grange was Jim Monroe, vice president of corporate affairs at the town’s anchor employer, Smithfield Foods.

“I’m here to express our company’s strong support for the Grange,” Monroe said, echoing Luter IV’s assertion that the development would aid the company’s ability to recruit employees.

Luter IV, given 30 minutes at the start of the public hearing to make his case for the project, said one of its goals is to “keep Smithfield Foods in Smithfield.”

“My father was aware that Smithfield Foods had chosen to put some 400 jobs in North Suffolk because they didn’t have the space in the town of Smithfield, nor did many of their employees want to live in the town of Smithfield because it doesn’t have the amenities and the variety of housing that that workforce seeks,” Luter IV said.

Luter IV declined to comment on the council’s postponing its vote to September.

Tracey Dowling, another speaker in support of the Grange, said her employer, Riverside Health Systems, “considers the Grange at 10Main an important complementary development to our health care campus,” and expects at least 200 new employees will come to the area to work at either a new medical office slated to open in 2025 or the Riverside Smithfield Hospital slated to open in 2026.

Several opposition speakers referenced Luter IV’s April remark to the town’s Planning Commission that he will at a future date seek “reimbursement” for the cost of “public” components of the Grange, though Bowman and Butler said Luter has yet to make such a request in writing for a specific dollar amount.

A Virginia Beach-based firm working with Luter IV estimated in January that the town and county could collectively owe more than $7 million as their share of the cost to extend sidewalks and utilities to the site, though Luter IV told the Times in May he expects the taxpayer-funded portion won’t be anywhere near as high. He has repeatedly declined to provide updated numbers when requested by the Times and by Planning Commissioner Thomas Pope. Luter says the town and county reimbursements would come from revenues generated by the development.

As part of Smith’s motion, the Town Council will revisit its Grange questions at a work session that will be scheduled prior to the Sept. 5 council meeting.