Planning chair urged Town Council to overrule Grange height vote

Published 3:28 pm Tuesday, August 29, 2023

Planning Commission Chairman Charles Bryan, in a June email to Smithfield’s Town Council, criticized his fellow commissioners for not getting on board with Grange at 10Main developer Joseph Luter IV’s planned four-story apartments and urged the council to overrule the dissenters.

Twelve days prior to Bryan’s email, the commission had voted 4-3 to recommend denial of Luter’s request for a waiver that would allow the Grange to exceed the town’s 35-foot maximum building height.

Commissioner Thomas Pope, who had previously urged against setting the “precedent” of allowing four-story buildings in Smithfield’s historic district, voted with Commissioners James Yoko, Mike Swecker and Julia Hillegass in favor of the denial.

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None of the four responded to The Smithfield Times’ requests for comments on Bryan’s email.

The planned mixed-use development, or PMUD, zoning option the Town Council approved in 2022, Bryan noted in his email, allows a waiver of maximum building height by special use permit.

“Now we are seeing commissioners not bold enough to use it,” Bryan wrote. “The Council can be.”

The Smithfield Times obtained the email through a Freedom of Information Act request.

The nearly 57-acre Grange site at Main Street and Route 10 is, at present, “a large vacant unattractive lot” at the edge of downtown.

The two 46½-foot, four-story apartment buildings proposed, would be “tucked away from any view outside the Grange,” Bryan wrote. “Because of this, I see no valid reason to deny a waiver of the requested heights. There is nothing out of the ordinary here.”

Pope clarified at the commission’s July 11 meeting that he was only opposed to the four-story apartments, and not the three-story ones, or the three-story hotel also proposed for the Grange. The hotel would be 42 feet tall and the three-story apartments 39 feet.

“This is an ideal time to put the new PMUD zoning to use,” Bryan wrote. “I feel some commissioners do not fully understand and appreciate the use of this new ordinance driven by versatility and innovation in planning.”

The Grange had drawn 13 speakers, all in opposition, at the Planning Commission’s public hearing in May, and 34 speakers, 23 in opposition, at the council’s Aug. 1 public hearing. In addition to considering a project’s support and opposition among residents, it’s important to consider people who will one day be residents but haven’t arrived yet, Bryan’s email asserts.

“These people are the special constituency of planning commissions,” he writes, quoting from “The Job of the Planning Commissioner,” a book by John Solnit.

“Forward thinking is not just inherent in Planning. It is required,” Bryan writes. “If Smithfield does not look forward with action, the town becomes stagnant, stuck, rusts, and eventually fails.”