In the Zone? The MPC seeks to streamline development review with NewZO

By Joshua S. Yellin, as published in the Spring 2019 issue of Beacon magazine

The Savannah-Chatham County Metropolitan Planning Commission (MPC) began the process of creating a new zoning ordinance (NewZO) for the City of Savannah in 2006, with the stated purpose of reducing the number of zoning districts, streamlining the review process, and increasing the efficiency of planners and staff.

Over the last thirteen years, the MPC has released six drafts of NewZO. After numerous town hall and industry specific meetings, Draft 6 is ready to be presented to the MPC for recommendation, prior to hearings before City Council.

If passed by City Council, NewZO will go into effect on July 1. If, and when, NewZO is implemented, it will not only enforce a set of standards and codes for development across the City, but also rezone all parcels of property located in the City to new zoning districts that attempt to more accurately reflect existing development patterns, while predicting for and assuring orderly future growth.

The City’s current zoning ordinance is anything but orderly and provides over seventy zoning districts; NewZO proposes to cut the number of districts in half. By reducing and better defining the City’s zoning districts, NewZO will more accurately classify and encompass the unique development patterns found within the City while providing more predictability to property owners.

As noted by MPC staff, the major changes from the existing zoning ordinance to NewZO will:

  1. Reduce and simplify the current range of zoning districts into a handful of higher-level groupings for business, residential, office-institutional, downtown, historic residential, historic commercial, and conservation.
  2. Create dedicated districts for downtown and historic neighborhoods to better reflect their unique situations.
  3. Dramatically simplify, rationalize, and update the zoning map.
  4. Allow mixed-use by right in commercial districts.
  5. Update development standards to better accommodate existing development patterns.
  6. Encourage better urban design with specific standards for parking lots, lot coverage, and lot frontage, among others.
  7. Reduce parking requirements where reasonable and provide more flexibility in meeting those requirements through off-site, shared, bicycle, or other forms of parking.
  8. Reduce the number of variance and rezoning requests.
  9. Improve procedural clarity for all zoning and variance actions.
  10. Make all requirements easier to understand, implement, and enforce.

See City of Savannah, Zoning Ordinance Update, Executive Summary.

As we are all aware, the City possesses one of the country’s oldest historic districts. Despite the numerous changes proposed within NewZO, the City will not be implementing major changes to the ordinances protecting the Landmark Historic District and the review that is required for all new development. In fact, NewZO proposes to expand the areas of review to include all designated historic districts within the City, ensuring that new developments outside of the Landmark Historic District receive increased evaluation by MPC staff and allowing for additional opportunities for the residents of Savannah to speak for or against applications during the public hearing process.

This additional review will be accomplished through the creation of a Historic Preservation Commission. The Historic Preservation Commission will be tasked, among many other responsibilities, with reviewing and providing the initial recommendation to the MPC for all rezonings and text amendments that impact properties within local historic districts, which currently include the following neighborhoods: the Victorian District, Cuyler-Brownsville, the Streetcar Historic District (Midcity/Thomas Square/Starland), Ardsley Park – Chatham Crescent, and Ardmore. Property owners and developers must be aware that future rezonings and text amendments within these neighborhoods, and within any neighborhood that, in the future, obtains a conservation or historic designation, will require additional time and investment.

While we cannot predict whether or not City Council will vote to approve NewZO, we are certain that the current zoning ordinance needs to be updated. We look forward to continuing to track and review all changes to NewZO as it progresses towards a final vote.