Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Mike Sheil: The Truth About the Laney-Walker Overlay Zoning District

Michael D Sheil
The Laney-Walker Overlay: What is to Be Done?
-by Michael Sheil

What is the deal with the Laney-Walker overlay? We hear from all sides– it's a land-grab, it's a blessing, it's an imposition, it's a protection, a necessity even. What then is it exactly?
In trying to answer that, let me start with the zoning amendment that authorizes it. That amendment was voted on and approved by the Augusta Commission this past Summer as Section 25-E of the Richmond County Comprehensive Zoning Code.  It's a text rich in possibilities, and I will post the whole of it below, but for now I will extract only a few key points.

- "The purpose of overlay zoning is to provide additional protection and/or guidance for specific areas through regulation and/or incentives that are applied in addition to the base zoning requirements."
- "They could also be used to protect the character of neighborhoods, commercial districts, and corridors. They could guide development more carefully than base zoning by identifying future urban zones and mixed use areas…"

What it is important to note here in the very first paragraph of this section of the zoning code is that this new type of overlay district can not only make the underlying base zoning of the affected district more restrictive (as is the case generally with overlay zones), but it can also make the underlying zoning LESS restrictive. The Laney-Walker revitalization plan calls for mixed-use development. This is not a fact that is being hidden. It would be truer to say that it is a fact that is being shouted from the rooftops. Business and professional uses would be mingled with residential uses. There are no two ways about it, and this is what makes it all the more striking that the representative for the private developer proposing this overlay has been giving assurances both publicly and privately that the overlay would do nothing to affect the base zoning of the area. 

The Department of Planning & Zoning gave the same assurances, so did the senior staff attorney for Richmond County. This is true enough in itself–last week's proposal would not have changed the current zoning of the neighborhood–but it would be disingenuous of them to maintain that the ultimate aim of the overlay is to leave the current zoning untouched. Mixed-use means mixed-use. The proposal last week called for limiting the allowed uses in one area of the Laney-Walker neighborhood to certain enumerated types.  "No liquor stores and pawnshops," is how they were selling it. The proponents of the overlay say that this restriction is necessary to "protect the community."

What is harmful in that? The harm (if it can be called that, "red flag" may be nearer the mark) is that the area on which the overlay was to be imposed is currently zoned almost entirely single-family residential. There is no need to protect the area from "harmful" business uses–the current zoning already absolutely forbids them. Restrictions on the business uses only makes sense if the area is to be opened up for commercial development. That is, the "mixed-use" development that the city has been so busy denying and affirming at one and the same time. Lately though, this affirmation has been wrung from Planning & Zoning–

"There is an area on Railroad Ave which I believe is the old foundry and zoned B-2 [business] which they are concerned about. Also, if their efforts are successful and the area takes off, there is the possibility that properties on Wrightsboro Rd could be rezoned."
It's not much of an admission, but after all the previous denials, it's a start. Re-zonings are, of a necessity, part of the plan. There are some who would refer to (and condemn) this sort of re-zoning as "spot zoning."

The overlay issue does not involve only businesses moving into the area, but also certain changes in the residential zoning, too. The overlay would authorize what it calls "low-density multi-family" zoning in the area. This would constitute a change as the area is, I repeat, almost entirely single-family now. The "low-density" part is there to soften the blow, I think. Again and again, city leaders have said that this overlay is to protect the neighborhood form "unwelcome" development,  yet the restrictions against unwelcome development are already there, and in fact are stronger now (the current zoning) than they would be under the proposed overlay. You simply are not allowed to put businesses and multi-family housing in a single-family residential area. Attempts to re-zone in that way (or even disagreements about permitted uses in a residential area) are usually met with vociferous denunciations:

Summerville Daycare Approved

"A daycare in a residential zoning violates county and state zoning requirements. You all need to get the facts before judging. We will lose this one the first day in court……" [huh?] (Comm. Joe Bowles)

"Austin, I guess your okay with your double standard of when the law is good and when its not?
As for a parochial school getting special treatment, that because it's a school, not a 14 hour a day business. Also last I checked parochial schools free up $$$$$ for our public schools.
If we want to talk about why Summerville has high property values it's because of planning not BS friendship zoning exemptions!" (Comm. Joe Bowles)
Augusta Commissioner Joe Bowles

"Chris, you completely are missing the basis of Summervilles case. The reason we have taken a decent area and made it better is through our master plan and adhering to it since 1977. That's why we have the property values we have, and now we have another area that is considered commercial. THIS IS KNOWN AS SPOT ZONING AND DETRIMENTAL FOR ALL NEIGHBORHOODS, NOT JUST SUMMERVILLE [emphasis added]. It sets a dangerous precedent that could spread and erode what Summerville residents have built!" (Comm. Joe Bowles)

All these quotations are from one of the Augusta commissioners who voted in favor of the overlay proposal last week, by the way. It would be a good idea, apparently, just so long as no one is proposing it in his neighborhood. There are some other aspects of the proposal that make this something I'm sure he would want to see implemented in some other neighborhood than his own. For one, the bulk of the new housing being built by the private developer (that is, the private developer who was hired by the city to redevelop the Laney-Walker area for the city), as I was saying, the bulk of the new housing is low-income government-subsidized housing. The agreements the city has entered into with the developer for building all this low-income housing can be found in the online records of the Augusta Commission, so I won't dwell on that too long. I will say, though, that revitalizing an area by moving low-income housing into it (and then restricting the surrounding homeowners' rights based on that low-income housing) seems a little counter-intuitive to me, but I'm no expert.

There is good reason to be suspicious of the Laney-Walker overlay plan. Maybe the fact that the zoning code's overlay amendment was drafted specifically to fit the Laney-Walker overlay proposal (a fact admitted by Planning and Zoning), maybe that fact made the developer (and the city) a little lazy regarding fitting the proposal to the law (and that's the oversight that has sent the proposal back to the drawing board). Whatever the case, the developer and the city government have been intentionally misleading regarding the clear implications of mixed-use development, when that is where the conversation with homeowners should have started. Until the city/developer can honestly approach it that way, I'm against this plan. As for their often stated concerns about "protecting the community", the best way to do that now is to respect the current zoning.**

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