Savannah’s Zoning Board of Appeals, perhaps one of the most mercurial and least publicly attended of the city’s various planning boards, has approved nearly every petition before it in 2015.
A review of the meeting minutes for the first five months of this year showed that in roughly 42 cases, excluding continuances, the board approved petitions in about 36 cases — some with conditions, some without.
These variance petitions can address things like fence heights, building heights, lot coverage, historical standards and parking spaces. Rezoning and permitted uses, such as turning a house into a short-term vacation rental, are also frequently reviewed by the board.
Jack Butler, a planner at the Metropolitan Planning Commission and secretary of the zoning board, said the tallies, in general, are irrelevant because each petition is considered on a case-by-case basis.
“The board has discretion to approve a variance when any of the four criteria are met,” he said via email.
Planning staff, on the other hand, when making recommendations to the board, does not have this discretion and must find the petitioner meets all of the criteria laid out in the city’s ordinances.
“At a guess, overall, I would say staff recommends approval about 40-50 percent of the time, but that is just a guess,” he said.
In a community where developers and residents are frequently pitted against each other, the high approval rate may come as a surprise to some. Though some preservationists have long accused the ZBA of developing a reputation as a rubber stamp.
An example of the contentious nature of some of these requests played out at the April 22 meeting, when a petitioner, Barry Koncul, asked for and was granted a variance of two feet from the five-foot side building setback along Columbus Drive.
Koncul plans to construct a 24-foot by 50-foot house on a 30-foot by 108-foot property.
After the zoning board approved the request, concerned neighbor Tricia Kilgore stepped up to the center podium and cried foul.
Kilgore also had submitted a letter with SAGIS data showing the side setback distances of all of the houses on the 300 block on Columbus Drive, none of which had setbacks of less than six feet.
“When you approve these variances, you encourage this type of development,” said Kilgore. “If I wanted to live three feet from my neighbor, I could live in a cookie cutter subdivision in Pooler.”
Board member Eli Karatosses got defensive.
“We understand what you’re trying to say, but in all honesty, we’re trying to protect the character of the neighborhood — trying to protect the values within the value of the neighborhood,” he said.
“I’m trying to protect the value of the neighborhood and character of the neighborhood by stopping this type of development altogether,” said Kilgore.
“But you have to understand people who own property they a right to—,” said Karatosses, before being cut off.
“I said it was legal,” she interjected, “but my argument was that it was inappropriate.”
“We try to give what is in the overall best interest of the neighborhood,” said Karatosses. “It may not make everyone happy, but if it’s a good decision, it makes half them happy and half of them unhappy, so we’ve done a good job.”
The chairman cut off the argument and moved on to the next petition. According to Butler, Karatosses’ term has actually expired on the board, but he continues to serve “at the pleasure of City Council.” Two vacancies, including Karatosses’ seat, are up for review.
These verbal tiffs are not unusual at the zoning board, especially between the board’s longer serving members Timothy Mackey and Karatosses. Nor is this the first criticism lobbed at the all-male, four-person board.
Former historic board member, Reed Engle, in an op-ed last year blasted the ZBA for overturning their decision to deny a demolition permit to developer Ben Carter for 240 W. Broughton St.
“ZBA members have no training in preservation, yet are making decisions that will impact the Landmark District for decades,” wrote Engle.
Another memorable variance ruling came in July 2014 from a now-approved, five-story student housing complex slated for Selma Street. The developers asked for nine variances to build to the height and mass they wanted.
At the time, Butler said planning staff had been receiving a laundry list of variances for projects that he felt were inappropriate, according to meeting minutes, and was creating a case where each project attempted to redesign the district.
The board approved them all anyway.