Smithfield Herald

Smithfield might ease landscaping requirements

Smithfield Councilmen John Dunn, left, and Emery Ashley at the July meeting of the committee tasked with revising the town’s development rules.
Smithfield Councilmen John Dunn, left, and Emery Ashley at the July meeting of the committee tasked with revising the town’s development rules.

Like other towns, Smithfield requires new homes and businesses to plant trees and shrubs, a mandate designed to beautify lots and create green buffers along property lines.

But in Smithfield today, landscape regulations fill 23 pages of the 443-page Unified Development Ordinance. The rules are so complicated and so arduous that developers often violate them unintentionally.

“They just don’t know,” said Mark Lane, a Smithfield Planning Board member who’s serving on the committee charged with overhauling the UDO. “They don’t know about all of the requirements or the specifics.”

At a recent meeting, Lane and his fellow committee members began tackling the landscape rules, eventually whittling them from 23 pages to 14; two of those pages are mostly diagrams that show developers where the town wants trees and bushes planted and how large they must be. (Any changes to the UDO will require town council approval.)

“If this is not easier for the town and its citizens than the old ordinance, then I have failed and will go back to the drawing board,” said Dale Holland, the consultant hired by the town to help revamp the UDO.

Smithfield Councilman Emery Ashley said he had heard complaints over the years about how much vegetation Smithfield requires. But town planner Paul Embler said Smithfield’s requirements aren’t as burdensome or as costly as some might think.

While Smithfield requires more shrubs than other towns, it requires smaller trees, which cost less, said Embler, who compared the cost of Smithfield’s landscaping requirements to those in other Johnston County towns. “Smithfield was actually the cheapest,” he said.

Embler argued that Smithfield’s landscaping rules, which are relatively new in the making, had been good for the town’s appearance. “Look at Bright Leaf Boulevard,” he said. “If you look north, you see the new requirements. If you look south, that’s the way it had always been. The outlet mall is another example of the new.”

Still, the committee is leaning toward cutting the required number of shrubs by half.

“I think it looks cluttered now, too many bushes in there,” said Lane, the planning board member.

But the committee might also require more landscaping in mobile home parks.

“That’s a pretty substantial buffer requirement,” Embler said, referring to a diagram showing what could be the new buffer rule for mobile home parks.

But no matter what the town requires, committee members worried about enforcement.

“My issue is with compliance,” said Bob Worsham, a member of Smithfield’s Appearance Commission.

In years past, Smithfield didn’t always enforce its landscaping rules, Embler said. It does now.

In any given year, Smithfield, with 13,000 people, will issue some 1,000 citations for violations of its landscaping rules. By comparison, Johnston County, with roughly 170,000 people, issues about 400 citations a year. Ember said that’s partly because the county requires a complaint in writing before it will investigate.

Steve Upton, a Smithfield Planning Board member, also faulted the volume and complexity of Smithfield’s rules. “It’s a muddy issue,” he said. “A lot of it they just don’t know.”

Smithfield is a farming community in transition, Embler said, so many people aren’t used to landscaping and other development rules. “They don’t see a need for it,” he said. “Smithfield’s been a traditional farming community for 200 years and is just now evolving out of it. People aren’t accustomed to this kind of thing.”

For more information on proposed revisions to Unified Development Ordinance revision or to provide feedback, go to

Abbie Bennett: 910-849-2827; @AbbieRBennett