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Townhouse debate deserved better arguments

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I have been in this business for nearly 37 years now, and I still cannot predict how a town council will vote, at least not with any certainty.

I was surprised, most recently, when the Smithfield Town Council said no to a townhouse complex on U.S. 301 near its intersection with Galilee Road. According to the planning staff, the accompanying rezoning request was consistent with the town’s long-term vision for that stretch of highway. In other words, the townhouses would have been appropriate even if they might have stood out among the other, older housing nearby.

And to me, a townhouse complex, no matter what one thinks of townhouses, would have been a considerable improvement over what’s on the land now. I drive by the lot every day on my way to and from work, and the vacant houses there now don’t contribute to the neighborhood.

Still, the Town Council said no, with Councilmen David Barbour leading the charge. But his arguments, to me, were unconvincing. He said, for example, that unless the N.C. Department of Transportation planned to widen U.S. 301 South, the highway was ill-equipped to handle the traffic from 17 townhouses. This is, of course, the same stretch of highway that accommodates the traffic from the mobile home park across the road. But real numbers matter, so I did the math. Every day, 11,000 vehicles travel that section of U.S. 301 South, according to the DOT. If every proposed townhouse had two vehicles that came and went every day, that would add 64 trips to the 11,000 count, an increase of just 0.5 percent.

Councilman Travis Scott, meanwhile, argued that the rezoning request, if approved, would amount to spot zoning. I’m not sure what Mr. Scott meant by that, because it seems to me that every rezoning is spot zoning. If a tract of land had the zoning a developer needed — whether business or residential — he wouldn’t need a rezoning. A rezoning, by definition, changes a piece of land’s allowable use from one thing to another.

Perhaps Mr. Scott thought a business zoning was the wrong thing to ask for, and frankly, I thought it odd too. But it turns out Smithfield allows townhouses in business districts, and that stretch of U.S. 301 South is already home to a handful of businesses, including two popular barbecue restaurants and a convenience store. A business zoning would not have been out of character.

Now it might simply be that the Smithfield council did not want to say yes to more rental property in town, even if that property promised to be new and attractive. If so, I share the council’s reservations about more rental housing in a town that really needs more homeowners.

But I’m guessing the developers of the proposed townhouse complex spent no small amount of time and money putting their plans together, and they deserved a better argument that they got from the town council.

Scott Bolejack is editor of the Johnstonian News. Email him at