Smithfield: Opinion

Demolishing old water plant is likely best

Smithfield’s old water plant will soon meet what is likely its best destiny – the wrecking ball.

Like others, I had hoped someone could breathe new life into the long-dormant building. Over the years, many Smithfield residents have envisioned themselves enjoying lunch or dinner in a rustic restaurant overlooking the river. Others have seen themselves renting a canoe and paddles for a leisurely trip down the Neuse.

But practically and politically, neither was likely to come about.

Practically speaking, a developer would have faced staggering renovation costs even with tax credits for rehabbing a historic building: The former water plant is not just old; it’s crumbling. Because of that, I doubt seriously a river outfitter could have repaid his or her building loan on canoe and kayak rentals alone. And I can’t imagine what it would cost to eat at a restaurant trying to pay its staff and its lender, probably more than the Bolejack household budget could afford on a regular basis.

Politically speaking, the Smithfield Town Council was never going to approve a new use for the old water plant without the blessing of the building’s residential neighbors, and that blessing would have been hard, if not impossible, to come by.

Many years ago now, a request to turn the old building into a restaurant actually made it to the Town Council. But it met a quick death when residential neighbors said they wanted none of the increased traffic that a restaurant would bring. In their defense, Front Street, Bridge Street and nearby streets aren’t meant for heavy traffic.

That was my earliest lesson in the power of neighboring landowners to thwart development, and it was a valuable one. I generally think people should be able to do as they see fit with their lands but not if their plans make life harder on their neighbors.

And so the old Smithfield water plant will soon come down, and therein lies an opportunity for the town to OK a land use that neighbors can endorse. Perhaps it could become a pocket park with playground equipment and picnic tables. Perhaps it could become a parking lot for boat trailers. If a remade boat ramp draws more boaters, then those folks will need somewhere to park their trailers. For that matter, I’d be OK with the town selling the land to someone who wants to build a house overlooking the river, though I suspect the town would want more for the land than it’s worth.

In any event, the building is coming down, and for reasons practical and political, that’s likely best. Not everything old can – or should – be made new again.

Scott Bolejack: 919-836-5747, @ScottBolejack