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Historic District Ordinance Wins Approval From City Council

Category: Local Govts & Politics

SBJ Staff

11/23/2009 - Praise came from all corners for a set of revisions to Savannah’s Historic District Ordinance that won approval Thursday from the Savannah City Council.

The revisions promise to give property owners predictability on uses of buildings and grounds. The revisions, say its authors, also are designed to ensure protection of historic resources “with appropriate and compatible infill.”

The revisions came from a 20-month working group process and a series of public sessions focused on amendments to the city’s zoning ordinance, including the Historic District Map and height rules. Revisions are divided into four main categories: height, large-scale development, urban design and process.

The measure also amends the Historic Building Map, which identifies all designated historic properties within the overlay district boundaries. The amendment assembles all previous amendments onto one digitized map. No additional buildings are being added to the map, planning officials say.

On the height side, the revisions reaffirm a policy of requiring compatibility with neighboring buildings, said Sarah Ward, an historic preservation officer with the Savannah-Chatham Metropolitan Planning Commission, or MPC.

The planning agency’s work on the revamp won praise from Alderwoman Mary Ellen Sprague as “the best work I’ve seen come from the MPC.”

Likewise, Alderman Jeff Felser called the work “a tremendous achievement.”

The MPC’s Ward said the revised plan affirms the importance of visual compatibility by giving the subject its own section in the plan instead of burying it among the plan’s text, as was done previously.

City Manager Michael Brown noted the revisions give at least slight latitude to building owners to vary from the height standards. In those instances, “we’ll have to look at what’s around them,” said Brown, who also noted that small height allowances may be granted for projects that offer “affordability” for residential housing and “green” building elements.
Brown said he thinks the revisions will be “on-going,” which will prevent the need “to do major overhauls every four years or so.”

Revision work also resulted in a less complex and more readable document, the authors say.

They say they restructured sections within the  ordinance to be more intuitive and provide better direction to the reader and reviewer.

Meanwhile, historic preservation advocacy groups praised the revised ordinance but cautioned it must be correctly interpreted and applied.

Daniel Carey, president & CEO of the Historic Savannah Foundation, said the new ordinance represents “a lot of consensus building.”

It’s not a perfect document, he said, “but it’s a very good document.”

In a letter to the mayor and council, Carey advised continued education and training of the staffs of the city and MPC and members of the Historic District Board of Review Board to help ensure the new ordinance is properly interpreted and applied.

“A good ordinance is of little value if it is not wisely used and consistently applied,” he wrote.

Carey further suggested “close supervision” of of the city attorney’s office to ensure the new ordinance “yields sound decisions.”

In a letter of support for the ordinance, Dolly Chisholm, an attorney for preservation advocacy group The Beehive Foundation, also urged the continued training and education.

Randolf Kulp II, president of the Downtown Neighborhood Association, wrote the association appreciated the openness of the revision process and gained insights into and knowledge of the preservation process and issues involved.

The ordinance will be up for a second and final vote of the council Dec. 3.

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