Planners urge ‘no’ on Sweetgrass housing development in 6-2 vote

Published 12:52 pm Monday, December 18, 2023

Isle of Wight’s Planning Commission is urging county supervisors to reject the 615-home Sweetgrass development proposed for the 250-acre Yeoman Farm by the Sherwin Williams store just outside Smithfield on Benns Church Boulevard.

The commissioners voted 6-2 on Dec. 12 to recommend denial of Ryan Homes parent NVR’s rezoning application to construct 390 age-restricted, detached homes, 225 unrestricted townhouses and up to 73,000 square feet of retail and office space.

The vote followed a presentation by Isle of Wight County Schools spokeswoman Lynn Briggs, who warned the cumulative influx of new students from Sweetgrass and other in-progress housing developments could overwhelm at least one of the county’s nine schools and put several others close to their capacities.

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Commissioner Jennifer Boykin, who in October had urged her fellow commissioners to look at the collective impact of all housing developments rather than Sweetgrass alone, made the motion to recommend denial. Commissioner Cynthia Taylor, who seconded the motion, joined with Boykin and Commissioners Bobby Bowser, Thomas Distefano, George Rawls and Rick Sienkiewicz in supporting it.

Planning Commission Chairman Brian Carroll, who in November had taken a position opposite to Boykin’s in urging the commissioners to consider Sweetgrass on its merits alone, joined Commissioner Matthew Smith in casting dissenting votes. Commissioners Raynard Gibbs and James Ford were absent.

A study Ohio-based Cooperative Strategies completed for IWCS this spring projected more than 1,000 new students would enter the school system upon the buildout of 13 planned housing developments in the county’s northern end. On Dec. 5, the 267-home Grange at 10Main development slated for the western edge of Smithfield’s historic district became the 11th to receive rezoning approval. Five, including a 240-unit apartment phase at the 776-home Benn’s Grant community 2 miles outside Smithfield’s town limits, are already under construction.

IWCS had just under 5,600 students enrolled as of Oct. 31, two-thirds of whom are concentrated in the northern end.

According to Briggs, the 77 new students expected from Sweetgrass’s townhouse phase, when added to the 552 expected from the five under-construction developments, would collectively put Smithfield Middle School at 101% of its 698-student  “program” capacity. Smithfield High School, which has capacity for 1,560 students, would be at 97%. Isle of Wight’s newest school – Hardy Elementary – would be at 90% of its nearly 900-student capacity.

“Program capacity,” Briggs said, differs from building capacity in that it is constrained by state standards regarding class size. A preschool classroom is required to have 18 or fewer students, Briggs said, while that same room, were it to house third grade, could have 24. Self-contained special education classrooms, she said, are capped at eight students.

“When we get asked about developments coming in, and if they tell us it’s going to generate 30 students at Smithfield High School, you’ve got capacity absolutely …, but what we often aren’t tracking is what’s going on out there,” Briggs said.

According to County Attorney Bobby Jones, state law only allows counties to accept cash “proffer” payments from developers for one-time capital improvement projects, such as a new school, and only if those projects are tied to expanding capacity to accommodate the proposed development.

They can’t be required to pay annual operating costs such as the salaries associated with hiring additional teachers. Briggs said IWCS currently spends $14,309 per student, of which $5,728 comes from local tax dollars. To accommodate the expected 77-student influx from Sweetgrass, Isle of Wight would need to increase its funding of the school system by just over $440,000 based on the current per-pupil operating cost.

To legally require a developer to pay a portion of a new school’s construction cost, the county would need to show with data “the need for an improvement in excess of the existing public facility’s capacity at the time of the rezoning,” Jones said.

Adam Edbauer, general manager of land for Ryan Homes, asserted to the commissioners in November that “there is no current capacity need” since the Cooperative Strategies study shows all nine schools presently operating within their capacity limits.

The county has plans in the works to replace its oldest school – Westside Elementary – beginning during the 2025-26 school year. But the estimated $71 million expense, according to Briggs, isn’t presently tied to capacity but rather the 1960s-era building’s age.