Planners postpone vote on Sweetgrass development

Published 3:50 pm Thursday, September 28, 2023

A public hearing on a mixed-use community proposed just outside Smithfield drew a handful of speakers in opposition but no vote from Isle of Wight County’s Planning Commission.

NVR, the Reston-headquartered parent company of Ryan Homes, has proposed 615 homes and up to 73,000 square feet of retail and office space for the roughly 250-acre Yeoman Farm next to the Sherwin Williams store on Benns Church Boulevard. Plans for the “Sweetgrass” development have been in the works since 2019.

NVR and Henry Layden, trustee of the Yeoman farm, have applied for conditional mixed-use zoning to permit 390 age-restricted single-family homes, 225 unrestricted townhouses and a commercial component spanning roughly 5 acres.

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Four speakers, including Mary Ellen Bebermeyer of downtown Smithfield, cited traffic among their concerns.

According to a traffic impact study submitted with NVR’s application, Sweetgrass is projected to add 6,685 daily vehicular trips to Benn’s Church Boulevard over the development’s six-year buildout.

Bebermeyer said she believed the 6,685 figure to be an underestimation, given that the Virginia Department of Transportation had projected 5,500 daily trips for the now-scrapped Grange at 10Main development, which would have added half as many homes and a mix of commercial uses at the western edge of Smithfield’s historic district.

“Morning and shipyard traffic in the afternoon, it’s just horrendous,” said Linwood Bell, whose home abuts the Yeoman Farm.

A market analysis submitted by NVR asserts Sweetgrass would fill a void in affordable housing by pricing the townhouses in the “upper $200’s” in a county where the “average price for a home built after the year 2000 and at least 1,500 square feet was $465,533.”

The average sale price for a Sweetgrass townhouse was estimated at $258,875 in 2019, and would likely still be priced in the upper $200,000 range, according to Tim Trant, an attorney with the firm Kaufman & Canoles who represents NVR.

Planning Commissioner Thomas Distefano, following the hearing, made a motion to table NVR’s application until October pending more information on the development’s cost versus benefit to the county. His motion passed unanimously.

Specifically, the commissioners are seeking additional information on the development’s potential impacts to the county’s school system.

According to a Sept. 26 letter to the county from Isle of Wight County Schools Superintendent Theo Cramer, Hardy and Westside Elementary schools, Smithfield Middle School and Smithfield High all have sufficient building space to absorb the 52 additional students Sweetgrass is estimated to generate. However, the school division is still expecting a “significant financial impact” from the development in terms of needing to hire additional personnel.

These costs include hiring at least one additional teacher at Hardy, an additional special education teacher and instructional assistant at Smithfield High and funding a special needs bus, driver and attendant for the development.

According to County Attorney Bobby Jones, Virginia law only allows for cash proffers from developers to fund one-time capital expenses, not ongoing operational costs. The way a development funds ongoing operational costs is through the tax revenue it generates, he said.

Commissioner James Ford said he expects with the planned 50-bed Riverside Smithfield Hospital set to open its doors in 2026, undeveloped land along the Benn’s Church corridor where the hospital and Sweetgrass are proposed is about to become “very popular” to developers.