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CITY TALK: Savannah’s zoning crisis is here. Now.

The wonderful and dark 2016 film “Christine,” which was filmed in Savannah, tells the story of Christine Chubbuck, a troubled journalist who worked in Florida in the 1970s.

Chubbuck thinks that she needs splashy stories to advance in the TV news business, and she also wants to tell serious stories about issues that matter to the community. That combination of ambition and seriousness is obvious at the outset of the film when she is covering a “zoning crisis.”

Can a community have a “zoning crisis”? Yes, as it turns out, and Savannah has one right now.

I first started writing seriously about zoning about 15 years ago, when we were working on a difficult but ultimately successful rezoning of my Thomas Square neighborhood.

By that same time, activists in tightknit Hudson Hill were calling on city officials to rezone their neighborhood, but nothing happened. Over a decade ago, the capable planners at the Metropolitan Planning Commission began working on a much-needed overhaul of the zoning code – another subject covered exhaustively in this column – but that process was delayed for years by political inaction.

Enter The Stage on Bay, a 1,000-capacity venue that has the potential to have profoundly positive impacts on the Savannah music scene.

According to the venue’s website, there are about 60 on-site parking spaces. For bigger shows, attendees can also park in two nearby lots with a total of 200 spaces. Parking will cost $10 to $20 for headline acts.

I’ve seen a lot of social media posts bashing the neighborhood for objecting to the new venue, but there isn’t a neighborhood in town that would embrace a 1,000-capacity venue that has only 260 parking spaces and will be open late every weekend.

It turns out, however, that The Stage on Bay met the existing zoning requirements, so neighborhood residents had no formal way to make their objections known until the venue applied for their liquor license.

And that’s another problematic element of our zoning process. Entrepreneurs can work with city staff and spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a location where alcohol is clearly allowed only to be thwarted when they are poised to open?

By contrast, in my neighborhood with a functional zoning process, an aspiring restaurateur received approval from the Zoning Board of Appeals for an alcohol license before beginning construction. With the support of neighbors and the ZBA already on record, city approval will be a formality.

If alcohol is a key part of the business model, we have to let businesspeople know far in advance if their license applications will be approved.

There are no winners here, except the attorneys who will profit from the litigation.

City Talk appears every Sunday and Tuesday. Bill Dawers can be reached via billdawers@comcast.net. Send mail to 10 E. 32nd St., Savannah, Ga. 31401.

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