Nick Palumbo: Savannah City Council and the art of the done deal

Savannah City Council recently approved rezoning that will allow a 55-foot-tall self-storage warehouse to be constructed in the Victory Drive corridor. They did so despite the fact that it had been rejected by both the Zoning Board of Appeals and then the Metropolitan Planning Commission. They did so despite the fact that a group of friends and neighbors, including eight business and property owners adjacent to the lot in question, have been fighting the project since March 2016.

 

The size and scale of the structure in a prominent, historic corridor make arguments against it easy: the construction of this building would negatively impact citizens’ quality of life as well as damage the public domain.

But the project had a secret weapon: It was backed by a CEO who had agreed to buy the property if it was rezoned.For a year and a half, the public name behind the development was Michael Bowen, a young developer out of Enigma, Ga.But just hours before the council’s decision, opponents of the storage tower learned through other sources that Bowen’s role was only partial. He acted merely as a “straw man” and signed a contingency contract to sell the property to someone else as soon as it was rezoned.

Pay-day loan connection

Mega storage opponents were shadowboxing local resident Alan Dasher. If that name rings a bell, it should. Alan Dasher is the former officer of a payday loan business shuttered by state officials after it was found, as reported by Georgia Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine, to be targeting soldiers and other low to middle income customers with rates of up to 800 percent interest.

“It’s loan-sharking,” Oxendine said in an Oct. 31, 2002, Savannah Morning News article by Jan Skutch and Noelle Phillips. “In my opinion, these people have been going around taking advantage of innocent and vulnerable Georgians.”

As a result of a settlement with the State, Dasher is prohibited from operating payday loan businesses in Georgia. He is now the CEO of the Stop ‘N Stor self-storage chain — a business where Dasher can establish interest rates and recovery fees for customers once again.

 

A familiar pattern

Following that initial defeat of the mega-warehouse by the ZBA, a pattern emerged: A few months would pass, and the warehouse proposal would miraculously reappear, most often near a major holiday. The MPC and ZBA repeatedly denied the variance. Unsatisfied with these decisions, the developer simply took the request straight to the Savannah City Council, where they received a much warmer reception.

At least two aldermen were aware of the Dasher connection. They arranged for Parkside Neighborhood Association co-chair Rob Hessler, whose organization formally opposed the development, to meet privately with Dasher just hours before the council vote, telling Hessler about the opportunity only the day before and requesting that he not tell other mega storage opponents the mystery developer’s name. Other megastorage opponents, including adjacent property owners, were not invited to the Dasher meeting.

Those same aldermen met with Hessler, concerned neighbors, and one adjacent property owner the day before the council meeting.Jean Shatto, who has owned property on Limerick Street since the 1970s and whose son operates his business in a tidy brick office building there, was so upset by the aldermen’s treatment of her at that meeting that she declined to speak at the public meeting the next day, fearing she would lose her composure. The aldermen told her that she had “no standing,” she said, because she lived on Wilmington Island, outside of the city limits. The Council had no such qualms about hearing from the developers who both live outside the city limits as well.

Hulking warehouse adds nothing to city

Our group – Smart Growth Savannah — has outlined a common-sense vision for Savannah. We advocate well thought development that is mindful of the principles of “smart growth” and contributes to what makes a city both livable and prosperous. We take the long view. It’s difficult to see how a hulking self-storage warehouse in the Victory Drive corridor meets any of those goals.

In early 2016 Alderman Bill Durrence gave us some advice:

If you have an objection, get in early and do your homework. So we did:

  • We got involved as soon as the first zoning notice was posted.
  • We wrote to our aldermen repeatedly.
  • We went to every relevant zoning board and MPC meeting, taking time off from work to do so.
  • We passed the hat and raised $3500 to hire an attorney.
     

A done deal from the start?

On April 27, after little discussion, the Council voted 6-3 to approve the rezoning, but it seemed clear it was done long before the public vote.

The grim outcome raises questions that seem rhetorical at first glance, but are dead serious. Why do we even have an MPC and ZBA? Does the council care what citizens think? And how long will we let injudicious planning decisions dictate Savannah’s future?

 

Nick Palumbo is a member of Smart Growth Savannah, a citizen-led advocacy group

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