Bloated zoning and lean Urbanism

I HAD planned on this column being about the City of Savannah’s effort to produce the "NewZO" (zoning ordinance), but as it turns out there’s not a lot to tell right now.

Draft Three of the NewZO is available online, but is it really worth trudging through all that for “Urbanist View” column material, when Draft Four is promised sometime soon? I don’t think so.

Draft Four was (and still is, on the website) promised to the public for review in the spring of 2017. In the last public presentation on the matter, it was predicted that NewZO might be adopted by now, in October of 2017.

I’ve asked around, and as far as I can tell, there’s not even an internal copy of Draft Four floating around City cubicles. The Precious is being kept in a cave and not shared with anyone. The website ( has not been updated since March 2017.

So while we wait (and wait) let me just re-state a few pertinent facts:

• The current zoning ordinance (OldZO) dates back to 1960. It uses words like “eleemosynary” (feel free to look it up and then teach it to someone about to take the SAT or compete in a spelling bee) and gives “tailor shop” its own use designation (64b). It desperately needs a complete overhaul.

• The current zoning ordinance contains 70 zoning categories and, by my count, 294 distinct use designations (like “tailor shop” and Sen. Bob Corker’s favorite, “adult day care center”).

These uses are, or are not, allowed on a parcel of property depending on which of the 70 zoning categories the property falls into. This is overly complicated.

I started to make an info-graphic showing the interplay between zoning and uses, but it got too complicated to see what was going on after charting just 8 residential categories (and 84 uses between them). Complete overhaul. Now.

(Pet Peeve Alert: I refuse to be complicit in the widespread abuse of the word “district” that occurs in regards to zoning. Zoning is applied to individual parcels. Zoning appellations should be called “categories,” not “districts.” Let’s not use geographical terms unless referring to a geographical area. Example: “Almost all of the parcels in Ardsley Park fall into the R-6 zoning category. It is therefore an R-6 zoning district.”)

• The tending of the current and future zoning ordinance is the responsibility of the Metropolitan Planning Commission (MPC), which has been without a director since September of 2016, when Tom Thomson stepped down. He had announced his impending retirement over six months earlier, in February of 2016. If you are counting, that’s 20 months, so far, to find a new director of a very important body, and it still hasn’t been done. I’m pointing out a correlation rather than a causation, when it comes to the NewZO not getting anywhere.

Private/Academic Sector to the rescue?

Luckily for all of us living under the continued oppression of OldZO, two Pale Riders come to town this week in an effort to lighten our burden.

These are Hank Dittmar and Brian Falk of the Project for Lean Urbanism.

Savannah (along with Lafayette LA, Chattanooga TN, and St. Paul MN) has been chosen as a pilot site for the project. Basically, the project seeks to make it easier for “citizen-developers” and small groups to operate within their own communities on small-scale projects.

This might be as small as rehabbing a dilapidated duplex, or building a new structure on a vacant lot (an “infill opportunity”, as they say). It could even be the development of several adjacent properties.

What it is not is large-scale. It is not a subdivision. It is not a chain hotel. It does not ask the government for bonds to finance a parking deck. It hopefully doesn’t need to hire a lawyer to get variances passed through MPC and City Council.

Instead, it is about YOU, the resident, noticing what is missing from your community, and being provided with the resources, knowledge, and support network to fill that gap yourself.

It is the next Foxy Loxy or Starlandia Art Supply. It is what’s coming next for the Starland Dairy (exciting news on that in the future).

Brian Falk, on what the project seeks to accomplish:

“The project focuses primarily on three goals: incremental successional growth; reducing the resources required for compliance; and providing ways to work around financial, bureaucratic, and regulatory processes that disproportionately burden the small actors and small projects. One of its goals is to make it possible for residents and business owners to participate in the building of their homes, their businesses, and their communities.” (from Public Square blog, June 01 2017)

Phase One of the project has already occurred. This was the “Lean Scan”, where local obstacles to small-scale development were identified, and districts ripe for some small-scale development projects were scoped out. These areas are dubbed “Pink Zones” because the goal is to relieve them of red tape (get it?)

This week, Phase Two will be executed – The Pink Zone Workshop. Falk and Dittmar, local facilitators like Kevin Klinkenberg of the SDRA and Beaufort urban designer Mallory Baches, and a cross-section of professionals and amateurs with their toes in real estate development will examine the obstacles and how they might be overcome so that small actors can make quick progress in the Pink Zones.

Look for a follow-up to this column in the future, where I will outline the results of the Pink Zone Workshop and let anyone interested know where they can access the “Toolkit” (Phase Three) that is created for small actors.

In the meantime, check out the website for the Project for Lean Urbanism at


About The Author

Jason Combs

Jason Combs is a consultant, entrepreneur, and writer with masters degrees in City Planning & Urban Design from the Georgia Institute of Technology. He is a long-time resident of the Thomas Square Streetcar Historic District.

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