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CITY TALK: Dueling petitions over alcohol sales in Thomas Square

How much alcohol is too much?

Individual answers will vary.

And neighborhood answers will also vary.

I’ve written here repeatedly about the zoning crisis in West Savannah. For years, neighborhood activists have tried in vain to get the area rezoned, but efforts stalled, largely because of inaction by Savannah city officials.

The lack of substantive action on zoning – the term we use for what uses are allowed in what places — led directly to the mess surrounding The Stage on Bay. As most of you know, Savannah City Council originally denied the large new music venue an alcohol license, but the mayor and aldermen later voted to grant the license because the zoning for that location allows alcohol sales as a matter of right.

In response to those issues, residents of West Savannah called on city officials to implement a moratorium on new alcohol licenses in the neighborhood.

The moratorium seemed like a regrettable but necessary step. As I suggested in a column a number of weeks ago, the West Bay Street area likely would benefit from zoning provisions like those in Thomas Square, where I live. For the most part, new businesses that hope to sell alcohol in my neighborhood have to apply for permission to sell alcohol as a “special use.”

But with the moratorium in place along West Bay Street, some residents of Thomas Square are calling for a similar bureaucratic delay.

On March 8, a petition was filed with the Clerk of Council’s office calling for a moratorium on alcohol licenses in areas that are zoned TC-1 and TC-2. That classification designates “traditional commercial” uses, with the “1” being used for smaller businesses, including ones that are not required to provide off-street parking.

The more intensive TC-2 classification is not widely used. The district is primarily limited to businesses on fairly large lots on the north side of Victory Drive between Price Street and Montgomery Street.

But there are many properties in the Thomas Square and Metropolitan neighborhoods – those two neighborhoods are increasingly considered as one neighborhood — that are zoned TC-1. When the current zoning was adopted over a decade ago, Metropolitan Planning Commission staffers largely relied on existing conditions to determine whether properties would be classified as “traditional commercial” or “traditional neighborhood.”

The TC and TN districts are all mixed-use, but the TN zoning is primarily residential, with fewer options for commercial development.

The new petition on file with the Clerk of Council has just eight signatures, most coming from residents of a single block of E. 38th St., but the first signature is from longtime neighborhood activist and president Virginia Mobley, whose name carries considerable weight.

The petition asks for the alcohol license moratorium until “Council can clarify the density of these types of licensees” and make sure the current zoning addresses issues such as “parking, noise and hours of operation.”

That petition has been countered by another petition created by neighborhood resident and business owner Clinton Edminster. As of this writing, the online petition (http://www.thepetitionsite.com/takeaction/489/382/279/), which argues that the proposed moratorium “would jeopardize vital local businesses currently opening in the area,” has almost 400 signatures.

Many of the signees are neighborhood stakeholders, but a significant number do not live or have businesses in the neighborhood.

Many of those who have signed the counter-petition have also included public comments, though only first names and last name initials are published on the site. Those comments make compelling arguments about business growth, entrepreneurial freedom and neighborhood revitalization.

A number of signees note the burgeoning restaurant scene south of Forsyth Park — another subject that I’ve covered often in this column.

I was among those who pushed for the current zoning in the neighborhood, and as I’ve argued here, the zoning works pretty well.

Since I live nearby, I was recently notified about a hearing to approve alcohol sales at a restaurant that will be about 40 yards from my front door. The proposed taqueria would not require any off-street parking and could result in more cars on my block. The business could be open late, and there could be issues with noise from the restaurant’s planned patio.

Sure, there could be some mild inconveniences for me as a resident, but when I bought the house over 20 years ago, I knew there were commercial properties all around me. I’m thrilled to see the current surge in investment, and I gladly wrote a letter in support of alcohol sales for the restaurant.

Other neighborhood businesses in the works include everything from a small bar to a large restaurant on the same block as Elizabeth on 37th. In every case, residents have the chance to voice their concerns before alcohol sales are approved.

In economically vibrant mixed-use neighborhoods, it can be difficult to find the right balance between residential and commercial interests. We’ve failed to balance those interests in some neighborhoods, but we’ve done a pretty good job in other neighborhoods.

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

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