Planners’ deadline looms for Sweetgrass decision

Published 4:15 pm Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Isle of Wight County’s Planning Commission has until Jan. 4 to vote on the proposed Sweetgrass development slated for the roughly 250-acre Yeoman Farm by the Sherwin Williams store just outside Smithfield.

The commission voted 5-4 on Nov. 28 to postpone its decision for the third consecutive month, this time to its Dec. 12 meeting. If the commissioners again delay to their Jan. 23 meeting, the 100-day decision window allowed under state law will elapse and result in Ryan Homes parent NVR’s rezoning application to build 615 homes and up to 73,000 square feet of retail and office space advancing to the county’s supervisors with an automatic recommendation for approval.

When Sweetgrass was first presented to the commissioners on Sept. 26, they posed a series of questions to Isle of Wight County Schools regarding the cumulative impact new school-age children residing in the proposed development would have on school capacity.

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On Nov. 8, Ohio-based Cooperative Strategies presented the School Board with a study projecting more than 1,000 new students would enter the school system upon the buildout of Sweetgrass and 12 other housing developments in the works, putting four of its nine schools over capacity. The study estimates Sweetgrass alone, which would consist of 390 age-restricted houses and 225 unrestricted townhouses, would generate 77 students.

Planning Commission Chairman Brian Carroll, one of the five who voted in favor of deferring a decision, said he’d invited the schools to send a representative to the Nov. 28 meeting but received a response instead requesting to meet only with him and one other commissioner, to which Carroll objected because of a perceived lack of “transparency.” He’s hoping another month will give the schools another opportunity to send someone to answer questions of the entire body.

Commissioners Bobby Bowser, James Ford, Raynard Gibbs and Matthew Smith each voted in favor of Carroll’s motion to again table Sweetgrass. The commission’s 10th member, Thomas Distefano, was absent.

Commissioner Jennifer Boykin joined commissioners George Rawls, Rick Sienkiewicz and Cynthia Taylor in opposing Carroll’s motion to again table the vote.

“This is the wrong project at the wrong time,” said Boykin, who last month had asserted “we do our community a disservice when we look at each development application on its own and not all of the development applications that are out there or coming our way.”

Carroll, at the Nov. 28 meeting, took the opposite view.

“We have to take this project on its merits and its impacts, and not the comprehensive outlook of schools,” Carroll said.

Virginia law allows cash proffers from developers to fund one-time capital expenses associated with new developments, such as building an addition or a new school.

“There is no current capacity need,” Adam Edbauer, general manager of land for Ryan Homes, told the commissioners on Nov. 28, asserting the Cooperative Strategies report supports his claim.

The study shows all nine schools operating below their maximum capacity based on Oct. 31 enrollment data. The school most at risk of exceeding its capacity, according to the study, is Smithfield Middle School, which is currently at 95% of its 634-student maximum.

Two of the four options the Cooperative Strategies report recommends would keep all nine schools below their capacities even with the impact of Sweetgrass and 12 other developments in the pipeline by redistricting which students attend which school. All four, however, call for at minimum either building an additional elementary school or expanding or replacing the 1960s-era Westside Elementary on West Main Street, which was at 87% of its 849-student maximum as of Oct. 31.

County staff, as of the Board of Supervisors’ Nov. 16 meeting, had estimated the cost of replacing Westside at just over $71 million, up from the $66 million school officials had estimated in early 2022.

“We can really only proffer something for what the current capacity is,” Edbauer said.