Time for Savannah and Chatham County to move forward with Unified Zoning Ordinance

Want to open a “trampoline center”? Think your property should be zoned “agricultural tourist”? Then we have the obsolete zoning just for you.

We’re constantly fighting about zoning here in Savannah, most recently in a controversy involving new townhouse apartments on 61st Street and a proposed restaurant at Drayton and Liberty that spent many months languishing on various meeting agendas.

In both those cases, it’s quite obvious that the approval process would have been conducted more rationally and with better public awareness if we had the Unified Zoning Ordinance in place.

I’ve written about UZO many times, including in a City Talk column in fall 2011. From that piece, with a few selected lines emphasized:

On a lovely day almost five years ago, I had the first of many detailed conversations with Metropolitan Planning Commission Executive Director Tom Thomson and the MPC’s director of special projects, Charlotte Moore, about the Unified Zoning Ordinance.

They were assembling a technical committee of government officials, various stakeholders and representatives of business organizations to review the work of MPC staff in drafting the UZO.

Thomson and Moore asked me, as a member of the media, to join that technical committee, which met for 28 two-hour sessions between March 2007 and February 2010.

Call me geeky, but I attended all but a couple of those meetings. It turns out I actually enjoy studying use schedules, lot sizes and all the other minutiae that the UZO had to examine.

I use the word “had” pointedly.

Chatham County and Savannah have separate zoning ordinances, both written over 40 years ago. They have been amended a myriad of times and are chock full of overlap, confusion about terminology and outright anachronisms.

Some elements of the ordinance are just plain funny, like the “Agriculture Tourist” district along U.S. 17 and the listing of “trampoline center” as a specific use.

Some elements are maddening. Why is a single-family residential district with a minimum lot size of 6,000 square feet called R1 by the county and R6 by the city?

Savannah and unincorporated Chatham County ended up with about 125 zoning districts. Much larger cities such as Chicago, Milwaukee and Seattle have less than half as many, as I noted in a column in 2009.

The bureaucracy that we created for ourselves is sometimes nightmarish for developers and even for ordinary residents hoping to make improvements to their properties or to incorporate nonresidential uses into their homes.

Let’s be really clear: the unnecessarily complex local zoning codes are costing us time and money. This is especially true for independent entrepreneurs who don’t have the reserves to wait out and fight the existing bureaucracies.

And let’s be really clear about something else: The UZO would streamline processes and definitions in ways that would remove many zoning decisions from the realm of petty politics.

For those who don’t think the public has had enough chance to hear about the document, check out the lists of meetings here, here, here, and here.

The Savannah Morning News weighed in on the editorial page a few days ago. From Zoning headaches: Tapas and UZO:

The proposed new ordinance, known as UZO (like the Greek liqueur) for short, would replace the half-century-old zoning guidelines that city and county governments have been using. Yet, at the rate local governments are going, it will be another 50 years before UZO comes up for a final vote.

Yes, it’s a complex matter. But the first public draft was released on June 28, 2011. A second draft was released on July 10, 2012. The MPC held nine public information sessions on UZO over the winter. No one can honestly say that planners didn’t seek out public comments and questions and make fixes.

MPC director Tom Thomson summed up the UZO’s potential impact by calling it the “one thing legislatively that will benefit every single resident in Chatham County.”

I watched the UZO process firsthand for over two years as a member of the technical committee, so there’s literally no doubt in my mind that the ordinance will streamline bureaucracy and fuel entrepreneurship.

Time to get moving on this thing. It’s simply embarrassing at this point that local economic development organizations, elected officials, and paid government staffers keep putting this off.

Click here to visit the website for the Unified Zoning Ordinance.