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NEW ZO: It's Time

Under the City of Savannah’s current Zoning Ordinance, Oglethorpe would not have been allowed to build the City that is our gem and economic engine, and a model for city planning all over the world.

In the United States, in 1960:

  • The average price of a new home was $12,700.

  • The average monthly rent was $98.

  • A gallon of gas cost 25 cents.

  • John F. Kennedy was elected President.

  • Xerox announced its first photo copier.

  • Chubby Checker introduced a new dance craze with his hit “The Twist.”

  • “The Flintstones” premiered on TV.

  • In Savannah, in 1960, we adopted our first Zoning Ordinance.

In fact, it wasn’t until 1961 that the first man (Yuri Gargarin) flew in space, and the Berlin Wall was built. The Berlin Wall has come down, and groups of people are routinely living aboard the Space Station for extended periods, but we are still using our 1960 Zoning Ordinance.

At the time the Zoning Ordinance (ZO) was written, development in Savannah was almost entirely along the southern edges of the City, around Derenne and in the expanding suburbs. It was large lot development patterns, with the type of segregated land usage that evolved in the U. S. after World War II. Business/commercial districts, shopping/entertainment areas, and residential plats were built separately, depending on the rapid growth in use of the personal automobile to connect them. Land use planning and zoning for that approach was very different from the centuries’ old tradition of urban mixed use and walkable neighborhood, human-scale growth.

In 1962, just two years after adoption of the ZO, Don Mendonsa, a former Director of the Metropolitan Planning Commission (MPC), and long-term Savannah City Manager, said, “…the zoning ordinance for the City of Savannah is not doing the job that it should in accomplishing the land development objectives of the community.”

Among his concerns at the time were numerous amendments, variances and incorrect zoning, and an ambiguous zoning ordinance, all even more true all these years later.

Recent demographic trends have seen a reversal of post WWII urban flight. More and more people, from 20 somethings to retiring Baby Boomers, want to live in the heart of the City, in mixed use areas where they can easily walk to work, dinner, shopping.

But the growth of residential populations, as well as business development, and visitor accommodations, plus amenities for all groups, has been constrained by a ZO that does not address today’s development patterns including small lots, mixed uses, and mobility/parking needs; essentially all the City core north of Victory Drive. That has led to numerous text amendments and requests for variances in an effort to adapt inappropriate standards to new ideas, or, in the case of the Oglethorpe Town Plan, very old ideas. The current ZO has over 70 zoning districts, creating too much complexity and confusion in anyone’s efforts, whether developer or resident, to easily understand what is and is not allowed.

More than a decade ago, MPC and City staff started work to modernize the 1960 Ordinance to more effectively reflect changes in City and neighborhood development, clarify procedures/processes, reduce requests for variances, reduce nonconformity, and improve the usability of the Ordinance.

Previous administrations allowed the effort to collapse and lie dormant, but in the last two years MPC and City staff have worked tirelessly, meeting endlessly with every stakeholder group or interested party to fine tune the language so that many previous opponents of the plan are now, if not enthusiastic, at least supportive of moving forward.

Benefits we will see include:

  • Improved transparency and ease of use, including Encode, an online search tool;

  • Explicit neighborhood engagement requirements for developers;

  • Reduction in number of zoning districts;

  • Recognition of current development patterns; and

  • Reduction in nonconforming uses and variance requests.

It is not a perfect document. It never will be. Land use and zoning are dynamic activities and the document that manages that will need to be dynamic. Following adoption of the New ZO, I’m sure we will soon get petitions for amendments.

But it is long past due to move forward with this essential tool, the underlying foundation for all City planning. MPC and City staff have done a great job with a very tedious project. The Planning Commission has voted 10-0 to recommend adopting this New ZO and revoking the old one.

After years of public input meetings with City and MPC staff the new zoning ordinance and zoning map—referred to as NewZO—will be presented to City Council during a public hearing on June 20, 2019 where discussion will occur on repealing and replacing the existing City zoning code and map with NewZO.

Following the public hearing, City Council will conduct a 1st reading on July 2 and a 2nd reading on July 18 to officially adopt the new zoning code and map. Once approved, NewZO will become the official zoning code and map for the City of Savannah. The NewZo ordinance will entirely update every parcel of property in the City of Savannah with modern classifications for living and business use. These zoning classifications are the foundation that shape areas into family neighborhoods, industrial districts or urban mixed use communities.

“Our zoning ordinance has never been overhauled to reflect the numerous changes that have occurred in the last 50 years,” says Planning and Urban Design Director Bridget Lidy. “This proposal will simplify our zoning code and provide much needed updates to parcels of land that have seen their use change as Savannah has grown.”

Let City Council members know, it is now time to act in the best interests of this community and vote YES for New ZO.


To learn more about New ZO, click here.

To learn more about Zoning in Savannah and its purpose, click here.

To weigh in on NewZO, visit to learn more, ask questions, leave comments and engage with City's Planning and Urban Design Director.

#NewZO #SavannahForward #Zoning #urbanism #landuse #development #ordinance

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