Editorial – Grange plan better, but still too risky

Published 5:14 pm Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Joseph Luter IV’s new iteration of the Grange at 10Main, an ambitious mixed-use development on the edge of Smithfield’s historic district, is significantly improved from the one derailed by widespread community outrage last summer. Sadly, town leadership lacks the gumption — and Luter the patience — to fix its remaining flaws and ensure a project that does more good than harm.

The breakneck pace at which town officials are rushing a rezoning vote — thorough vetting be damned — is a reminder that this process was never about engaging with citizens and building a project that’s right for Smithfield and its superb historic district. It was about finding the votes on the Town Council to approve it. 

The abrupt departure of Wayne Hall, who along with Mike Smith and Jeff Brooks had thrown the brakes on the Grange when the earlier version hit the council, gives project supporters the opening they needed to pounce. Never mind that, if the vote is taken next week as expected, as few as five people on a seven-member board will decide the fate of a project that will forever transform, for good or bad, Downtown Smithfield. 

Subscribe to our free email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

If transparency and citizen participation were true values of town leadership, the Planning Commission would have held a public hearing on the new Grange plan, taken citizen input to heart and worked with Luter to improve his application, especially its still-inadequate plan to control traffic on Grace and Cary streets, the crown jewels of residential living downtown. Instead, town staff chose not to even schedule a public hearing. Planning commissioners dutifully followed the town attorney’s coaching to take a vote that very night. Both were choices, not requirements.

We’re pleased that Luter slightly reduced the project’s density and removed four-story buildings. And at least for now, taxpayers appear to be off the hook for infrastructure expense other than a farmers market. On the downside, the lone change to traffic flow, an entrance off Mill Swamp Road, isn’t enough. Downtown residents are right to be livid. The town also deserves much more specificity about how the residential and commercial components will be phased. Think Benn’s Grant for what can go horribly wrong when residential is prioritized.

We’ve heard a lot from Grange supporters about honoring the Luter family’s legacy in Smithfield. It says here that they are risking great harm to that legacy by ramrodding a project that lacks safeguards to ensure its appropriateness for a community that is nothing without its small-town charm, which Joseph Luter III worked benevolently and tirelessly to enhance and preserve.

History will view favorably Smith, Brooks and others who’ve asked questions and raised concerns. The Grange plan is much improved because of their efforts. It has the potential to be even better.