A QUESTIONABLE zoning decision by Savannah City Council is barely newsworthy these days. Like death and taxes, they seem inevitable and unavoidable.
More and more good-hearted, engaged citizens I know are just throwing their hands up in resigned defeat at the absurdity and brazenness of it all.
One is tempted to localize the old line from Chinatown:
Forget it, Jake. It’s Savannah.
However, the 6-3 vote last week to allow a total rezoning for a five-story self-storage facility (!) covering three lots in a residential neighborhood behind Whole Foods seems to take the absurdity, and the just-plain-wrongness, to the next level.
It sets a dangerous precedent that will be difficult to claw our way back from.
Or maybe more to the point: It sets a precedent that there are no precedents, that there are no real rules or guidelines at all as far as this particular City Council is concerned.
For years, a consensus here held that the Metropolitan Planning Commission (MPC) was a rubber-stamp body for deep-pocketed developers able to afford one of the handful of attorneys here in town who always seem to be spearheading the most egregiously guideline-flouting commercial projects.
But that really isn’t so much the case anymore. We have now reached a sort of BizarroWorld where when the MPC gets a call right, MPC members and staff are virtually guaranteed to be disregarded at least in some form or fashion by City Council, on a completely ad-hoc basis.
It is of course generally preferable that elected officials, who are answerable to the public, bear more of the decision-making burden than appointed or career bureaucrats.
However, when said elected officials display the mercurial, almost child-like inconsistency we’ve seen from Savannah City Council lately, you have to conclude that maybe they should have their toys taken away and they should go in time-out for awhile.
Indeed that is basically what Alderman Julian Miller has said, when he finds himself, as he usually does, in a minority vote against whatever capricious, short-sighted decision was just made by the Council majority: When are we going to start planning for things like this?
Aldermen Van Johnson and Tony Thomas also voted against the rezoning, correctly in my view. These three very different men, often with very different agendas, do seem to agree that the City desperately needs some kind of consistent protocol for balancing developer and citizen concerns.
This lack of a strategic plan has led to a context-free environment where if a developer does everything right, within zoning guidelines, they still might get their development quashed by Council because of neighborhood opposition, triggering an expensive court battle.
Or — as is the case with the mega-storage facility — no matter how many times you’ve been rebuffed by other local regulatory bodies, you can always throw a Hail Mary to Council to see if you get enough bites for a majority, as long as you find a couple of people in the neighborhood who say they’re OK with it.... maybe also triggering an expensive court battle.
It’s no way to run a city.
I assure you that not a single one of the six who voted in favor of the zoning change would vote for a five-story self-storage facility the height of the Savannah Civic Center right beside their own homes.
A friend of mine described the self-storage vote this way: “It was such a bad idea that they had to vote for it.”
He said it in jest, but it strikes me as the best way to describe it.
What better way to exercise power than to exercise it just because you can?
I assure you that not a single one of the six who voted in favor of the zoning change — Mayor DeLoach along with Alderpersons John Hall, Estella Shabazz, Bill Durrence, Carol Bell, and Brian Foster — would vote for a five-story self-storage facility the height of the Savannah Civic Center right beside their own homes.
But, here we are. Anybody who wants to change zoning for any reason, regardless of what the MPC thinks, is potentially likely to get their request approved.
No district and no neighborhood is really safe at this point.
Is it a bit hypocritical to say, as I wrote about the Stage On Bay, that as long as a business is within its rights there’s little the surrounding neighborhood can do about it?
I suppose you could make that case.
Then again, with the self-storage facility we’re talking about a total zoning change that was already declined several times by other regulatory bodies.
Why do we even have an MPC if no one’s going to listen to it? If the so-called “right of last resort” of going to City Council is now often the only resort that counts?
But I was most troubled by the deeply cynical attempts by the Council majority to justify their vote by saying “If we don’t approve this, something even worse might go there.”
As others have pointed out, what could be worse than a facility twice the height and mass of the next largest building for blocks around, literally overshadowing working-class homes?
It’s a pretty short list, in any case.
It struck me as a particularly distasteful form of blackmail: Don’t complain too much, or we’ll really show you how bad we can screw things up.
It’s no way to run a city.