The Chatham County Zoning Board of Appeals on Tuesday approved an 11-foot height variance for ornamental tower entrance on a planned senior living facility on Skidaway Island, despite staunch opposition from several nearby residents.
The proposed building, at Diamond Causeway and Lake Street, is three stories tall with a height of 45 feet. The tower element is 56 feet tall and its primary function, according to developer Victor Apat, is to break up the long mass of the building, which will include more than 130 independent living, assisted living and memory care units along with marking the entrance.
“We are narrowly focused simply on the tower today. We like the building and we’re happy to be becoming a part of the community and we’ve had several community meetings where we’ve presented our plan and it’s been extremely well received,” Apat told the board, adding that the facility was already fully booked.
While the board’s authority was solely to vote on whether or not the extra height could possibly cause substantial detriment to the public good, or impair the purposes and intent of the Savannah Zoning Ordinance, the public conversation quickly turned to various concerns of residents, which centered on the overall appearance of the building, removal of trees, traffic and the lack of information about the project.
The rezoning for the 6.72 acre lot, which by law required the notification of residents within 300 feet, along with signage placed on the property and a print notice in the Savannah Morning News, was approved by the Metropolitan Planning Commission in August 2016 and later by the Chatham County Commission.
The site plan is reviewed by planning commission staff and the county engineer’s office and is subject to the zoning standards, including setbacks, lot coverage and density, but the architectural style and design of the building isn’t subject to approval from any board.
Beau Anders, who presented a petition to the board that included more than 200 signatures of residents who said they are concerned with how the project is unfolding, said residents only saw plans for the project last week and the development process had been ‘conducted under a cloak of secrecy’ and urged the board to continue the hearing to the next meeting.
“I am sure it was designed to meet legal requirements, but it was not conducted with the residents of the community at large in mind,” said Anders, who also serves on the board of directors at the nearby retirement community, The Marshes of Skidaway Island.
“A week ago I corresponded with the leaders in our community and other residents and only then did a presentation of the facility get presented last Friday to 200 residents per The Landings Association.”
Speaking both during and after the meeting resident Ed Conant said he felt that the government had failed the residents and said the public signage on the lot wasn’t located in a noticeable spot.
“Nobody approved (the building). You meet the technical requirements and there’s no community engagement,” Conant said.
Residents asking what avenues should be taken to reassess the design were told by board member James Blackburn, Jr., that “the horse was out of the barn” and he along with other board members reminded the residents that their issues were not under the board’s purview and urged the residents to hold a meeting with the developer, with both parties expressing willingness to do so.
Following public comment Apat said he was willing to hold a bigger community wide meeting and the reason it had not been done before now is because he wanted to be able to present correct information.
“It was always our intent to have a community wide meeting in January or February… We want to be part of the community,” he said.
While acknowledging and thanking the residents for their involvement, board chairman Quentin Marlin noted that the vote was only for the tower element and not for the overall project, which could continue either way. Vice chairman James Overton, who has a family member working with the developer, recused himself from the hearing and the vote.
“Change is hard and it’s hard to see something that’s all trees become something that is not all trees. The property is meant to have something there at some point and we’re not here to discuss that part of it, we’re only here to discuss this tower and stick to what our scope is here today,” Marlin said.
“We expanded it to let people speak out because people care about this issue… but this motion has to be limited to this tower.”