The city is one step closer to adopting zoning changes proponents say will help protect the integrity of the Downtown Historic District.
On Thursday, the Savannah City Council held a first reading of a zoning amendment that would require public notification and hearings for downtown subdivision or recombination requests, but backed off from officially adopting the changes.
The proposed amendment was spurred by concerns raised by opponents to the subdivision of a lot at 336 Barnard, where a 3-story building is being built in place of what was a 1-story apartment building. The parcel where the home is being built at Barnard Street and Charlton Lane was subdivided from the lot of a downtown Savannah home fronting Charlton Street.
Opponents were concerned a loophole to the zoning ordinance was being created by the subdivision of the property and subsequent approval of the building, which they said would be looked at as an invitation for other property owners to do the same. That in turn could lead to the erosion of Savannah’s Oglethorpe Plan and revocation of downtown’s historic designation, critics contended.
The language of the ordinance was crafted in part through participation by the Downtown Neighborhood Association, Historic Savannah Foundation, Beehive Foundation, Tourism Leadership Council, Oglethorpe Plan Coalition, Forsyth Park Alliance and Historic District Board of Review, according to city officials.
After being “mired in red tape”, the proposed amendment represents a win for all residents by creating greater transparency regarding important land use decisions and allowing the public to be heard, according to Oglethorpe Plan Coalition founder Andrew Jones, a leading proponent of the change.
If the new requirements had already been in place, it is likely that a proposed swimming pool at 3 West Perry St. – another controversial project – would not have been approved, Jones said.
The pool for guests of multiple short-term vacation properties was approved following the combination of two lots at the site, but the city has since issued a stop work order on the project after residents raised concerns.
“Had the public weighed in, it would also have pointed out, among other things, that the covenant in the property deed required approval of Ships of the Sea Museum, which had not been obtained for the project,” Jones said.
At Mayor Van Johnson’s recommendation, the city council decided to stick with a first reading Thursday and held off on adopting the ordinance. The postponement came after Metropolitan Planning Commission Executive Director Melanie Wilson and MPC chairperson Karen Jarrett raised concerns that the changes did not first go to the advisory board, which typically reviews zoning changes and offers recommendations prior to the city council's consideration. In addition, alderwoman Kesha Gibson-Carter said she was concerned that the extra protections were not being applied to other historic districts throughout the city.
Local real estate broker Richard “Dicky” Mopper also voiced opposition to the proposed changes and subsequent approval process, which includes going to the Historic District Board of Review.
“They’re not zoning people and, unequivocally, I don’t think it should be their position,” Mopper said. “There may be other ways for the public to get notice.”