IW supervisors approve 615-home Sweetgrass development

Published 11:42 pm Thursday, May 16, 2024

Isle of Wight County supervisors voted 3-2 on May 16 to approve mixed-use zoning for Sweetgrass, a proposed 615-home development with up to 73,000 square feet of commercial space fronting Benns Church Boulevard.

Supervisor Renee Rountree, who made the motion to approve the rezoning, voted in favor of the project along with supervisors William McCarty and Rudolph Jefferson. Board Chairman Joel Acree and Vice Chairman Don Rosie cast the dissenting votes.

The vote overrules a 6-2 December decision by the county’s Planning Commission to recommend denial of Ryan Homes parent NVR’s rezoning application to construct 390 age-restricted, detached homes, 225 unrestricted townhouses, 55,000 square feet of office space and an 18,000-square-foot shopping center at the 250-acre Yeoman Farm by the Sherwin Williams store just outside Smithfield.

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A same-day public hearing drew seven speakers, four in favor and three opposed.

“I never thought I would live in a Ryan home, but I have been pleasantly, pleasantly surprised,” said Carol Frost, a resident of the 776-home Benn’s Grant development. Ryan bought the developed lots from Benn’s Grant developer East West Communities.

Sheryl Johnson of Carrollton, however, raised concerns over the cumulative impact of 11 in-progress and approved developments in the pipeline.

The Planning Commission’s December vote followed a presentation by Isle of Wight County Schools, which 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.

Tim Trant, an attorney representing NVR, told the supervisors an estimated seven-student capacity deficit at Smithfield Middle School could be alleviated by the building of a new school, which Isle of Wight County is already planning to do. Replacing Westside Elementary, a grades 4-6 school, with a new intermediate school is included in the county’s Capital Improvements Plan at $38 million though the most recent cost estimate by the county is $71 million.

Trant said NVR has agreed to pay its proportionate share of the $38 million, which works out to $1,825.76 per student or roughly $410,000.

Supervisor Don Rosie called the projected 52-student influx to Isle of Wight County Schools, down from the originally estimated 77, “not significant currently” by itself.

“We have capacity for that,” Rosie said.

Acree, however, took issue with the estimated 6,685 daily vehicular trips a traffic study submitted with NVR’s rezoning application estimates would be added to Benns Church Boulevard, also known as Route 10.

“When we’ve talked about other places in the county, particularly the northern end of the county, that had traffic, we’ll call them issues, that (Route) 10 corridor is a big deal and to add virtually anything to it certainly doesn’t improve it,” Acree said.

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, Trant had told the Planning Commission last year.

“We know we’ve got a shortage of homes here in Isle of Wight County, especially affordable houses,” said Supervisor Rudolph Jefferson.

“What changed?” Supervisor Renee Rountree asked Isle of Wight Community Development Director Amy Ring, who had recommended against Sweetgrass’s approval when the matter went before the Planning Commission in December but had recommended approval at the supervisors’ meeting.

Ring said her concerns regarding the school system’s capacity to absorb the influx were mitigated by the project’s phased construction timeline, which would lessen the number of new residents per year, and the voluntary $1,825-per-student cash proffers.

Rountree had in January proposed a moratorium on approving new housing developments until a then-proposed “growth management task force” delivered a report on the county’s capacity to absorb the cumulative influx of new residents from all proposed and in-progress subdivisions. Though the supervisors had approved Rountree’s task force in February, County Attorney Bobby Jones advised delaying or outright denying all rezoning applications during the months the subcommittee would meet would likely run afoul of Virginia law.

Rountree asked Ring for an update on the group, which the board voted to create as a subcommittee of the Planning Commission. Ring said the commissioners are scheduled to name the group’s members on May 28.

At a May 13 meeting with area residents at The Smithfield Center, NVR representatives said Riverside Smithfield Hospital, a 50-bed facility slated to open in 2026 less than a mile from Sweetgrass, was in support of the development. Riverside, in a May 16 email to The Smithfield Times, confirmed its support.

“Riverside supports the proposed Sweetgrass development,” said Riverside Smithfield Hospital President Jessica Macalino. “The project will provide much-needed housing stock for our employees, and the 55,000 square feet of office space has the potential to support the substantial medical needs that will be generated by the new hospital. We look forward to being able to provide direct access to healthcare to the Sweetgrass residents, thus allowing us to continue to carry out our mission of caring for others as we would care for those we love.”

Planning Commission Chairman Bobby Bowser, speaking to the Times on May 17, called the supervisors’ vote to overrule the denial recommendation “a little surprising” but “their prerogative.”

Bowser, who was among the six commissioners who voted for the denial recommendation, said he too is concerned about the cumulative impact of in-progress and proposed developments in the county and in the town of Smithfield. The town last year approved the 267-home Grange at 10Main development at the west edge of Smithfield’s historic district, and in 2021 approved an 812-home development off Battery Park Road dubbed Mallory Pointe.

Sweetgrass is “a big project,” Bowser said. “I think the country probably needs to look along with the town of Smithfield at what’s really going on in both areas.”

Editor’s note: This story was updated at 10:56 a.m. on May 17 with additional details and reactions to the vote.