Friday, June 08, 2007

Overlays are Neither Demons Nor Angels

Just a few days ago real estate blogger Will Sanford was haranguing Council Member Mike Jameson as some kind of co-conspirator against neighborhood democracy itself. Now he is crowning Jameson's efforts (along with other Council Members) to rezone Gallatin Road with an SP ("Specific Plan" zoning) backed by some ambitious projects. Sanford's extreme interpretations are hyperbolic and head-spinning.

But they no doubt serve his purposes. I'm not surprised at all that Sanford is keen on SPs. As long as neighborhoods can track them and stay attuned to what is approved they can be good things. But just like any other zoning tool, they can be abused and misused. And they can be better for some than for others.

I recently spoke to Germantown leaders who were critical of SPs because of the constant attention--development-by-development, planning meeting-by-planning meeting, approval-by-approval--that they require. Unlike the developers and the investors, very few neighbors have the time to monitor every single stage of the SP approval process. That puts the neighborhoods at a distinct disadvantage, unless their Council Members (like Mike Jameson) are proactive and hands-on. How is that "forward-looking"?

Salemtown's only experience with SPs has been Schoene Ansicht, and if you have kept up with that saga, you have some idea of the problems we have had with a development design that probably should not have been allowed on a property of that size and of with a stormwater retention tank that, though approved by Metro, was also met with Metro's concerns about how it could flood an adjoining property and aggravate an already unacceptable surface water run-off on Hume Street.

The SP opens the door to many things for investors, developers, and real-estate types, but it can be a booger for neighborhood leaders to have influence over. If we would have known that on the front end of the planning process, the Schoene Ansicht development story probably would have been a different one.

Don't mistake my sobriety about zoning for a rejection of the Gallatin Road SP or SPs in general. They are tools, like conservation overlays, that help in some situations, but in others, not so much. Make no mistake: SPs have their own complications for neighborhood leaders and those complications are what often give the people who make the lion's share of the money in the real estate industry a clear advantage. I am thinking that such is what Sanford means by "practical, forward-looking."

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