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City Council enacts sweeping update of zoning and development rules
Unified Development Code includes ‘right to rebuild’ on vacant lots in Statesboro’s older neighborhoods
Caleb Racicot, a community planner with the TSW consulting firm, summarizes aspects of Statesboro's new Unified Development Code, or UDC, during a work session with the mayor and council members earlier this summer. City Council unanimously adopted the UDC as city law Sept. 19. - photo by AL HACKLE/Staff

City Council unanimously approved Statesboro’s Unified Development Code – a rewrite and update of zoning and related ordinances almost two years in the making – on Sept. 19. Among other things, the UDC should make it easier to build new homes on vacant lots in older neighborhoods.

With a simplified set of residential zoning categories, the new code also allows smaller homes to be built in some areas. These were aspects that Marcus Toole, outreach coordinator for Habitat for Humanity of Bulloch County, had in mind later during the same meeting when he publicly thanked city officials for the code’s enactment.

“Understand, this was a game-changer for a lot of the older neighborhoods around Statesboro because it will allow organizations like Habitat and developers to do infill construction in those neighborhoods in all the empty lots and places where houses have burned down or fallen down over the years,” Toole said. “The way the old ordinance was written, you had to put two or three lots together to build one house.”

The core of Statesboro’s previous zoning ordinance dated from the late 1970s, but some sections had been modified or added later, while elements of some other ordinances now replaced by the UDC were even older.

In the 1960s and 1970s, a residential development strategy adopted by many American cities was to require larger lots and deeper setbacks, even where existing houses were smaller, Toole said in a follow-up interview. But instead of encouraging construction of higher-end homes in older neighborhoods, the policy kept those neighborhoods uniformly poor and created vacant lots, he argues.

Caleb Racicot, a principal planner with the planning and architectural consultant firm TSW, had presented drafts and revised details of the Uniform Development Code with the mayor and council during work sessions over the past several months. The most recent was Aug. 15, the afternoon that the council voted the ordinance forward on a first reading.

So, when the council voted final approval last Tuesday, there was no further presentation and very little discussion.

But Toole said he is confident the UDC will have a much longer-lasting impact than a decision that attracted much more attention, the council’s compromise on a millage rate for the city property tax.

“Two years from now no one will remember what they paid for property taxes in 2023, but 20 years from now, this zoning rule will have profoundly impacted how Statesboro looks, and it will still be having an impact on what neighborhoods look like,” he said Friday.


Right to rebuild

In a May presentation, Racicot said the UDC would remove “all of the barriers” to building on vacant lots in established residential areas. Under the old rules, if a lot did not meet the zoning requirements for construction of a home, the owner or developer had to apply for a variance, requiring a planning board recommendation and council approval.

“But this would make rebuilding on those lots a matter of right. …,” Racicot said to the mayor and council then. “It’s making it that much easier to invest in our historic neighborhoods versus go out on the edge of town and eat up green land.”


Fewer ‘R’ zones

In drafting the development code, TSW’s planners also had Statesboro reduce its number of single-family home zoning classifications from five to three. Besides simplifying the zoning, this will also allow houses to be built on smaller lots in some areas.

“R” stands for residential. On the city’s map, the old zones for stand-alone houses were classified R-6, R-8, R-10, R-15 and R-20.

In an R-8 zone, the minimum lot size for a house was 8,000 square feet, or a little less than one-fifth of an acre. In an R-10 zone, the minimum house lot size was 10,000 square feet or not quite one-fourth of an acre, and so on for the other categories.

“It’s really unusual for a city of the geographic area of Statesboro to have this many zoning districts,” Racicot said in April, referring to the old ordinance.

As approved, the UDC has consolidated those previous five districts into the R-6 and R-15 classifications, eliminating the other three, and added an R-40 classification. In an R-6 zone, the required lot size is 6,000 square feet and larger, or around a seventh of an acre and up. In R-15, the minimum lot size is 15,000 square feet, or a third of an acre.

Home lots in sizes previously allowed in the R-8 and R-10 districts will still be allowed in the consolidated R-6 districts, since the regulation establishes only the minimum size, along with related requirements. Home lots of the previous R-20 size would be allowed in the consolidated R-15 district.

“It’s a lot more user-friendly. That’s for sure,” District 1 Councilmember Phil Boyum said of the UDC after it was approved.

The UDC also redefines Statesboro’s downtown Central Business District so that it is no longer viewed as strictly commercial.

“We have created updated standards for downtown, the CBD, to make it easier to do housing here, to make it easier to have housing in commercial (buildings) here, to make it easier to reuse historic buildings here,” Racicot said in May.

The regulatory overhaul replaced some of Statesboro’s commercial zoning along major highway corridors with mixed-use zoning so that housing can be added in areas with restaurants and shops.


Trees and amenities

Some other requirements in the UDC reflect the desire of city officials to maintain Statesboro’s “Tree City” status and ensure that major residential developments include communal living spaces.

After the council made some choices in June, the enacted version requires that every lot where a new single-family house is built must have at least one medium or large tree (sizes defined in the rules) at all times.

Single-home and duplex subdivisions with 30 or more units are required to maintain “amenity space” covering at least 10% of their total area with playgrounds, pools, sports courts, community lawns and gardens, pedestrian areas, splash pads, walking trails, dog parks or accessible wooded areas.

“Urban Forest Beautification and Conservation” is a subsection of the “Environment” section of the 453-page UDC.


TSW’s 2-year role

The TSW company was already working on Statesboro’s Downtown Master Plan in October 2021 when City Council agreed to contract with the firm for a complete revision of the city’s zoning, sign and subdivision codes for a fee of $130,000. In March 2022, the council agreed to expand the work to include review and revision of other ordinances, which when combined with the zoning, sign and subdivision codes became the UDC, at a further cost of up to $97,100.

Then the city’s Planning and Development Department and TSW pressed for completion of a city law regulating townhomes because of the number of development proposals the city was receiving for townhouse subdivisions. The townhomes ordinance, adopted by the council Aug. 1, 2022, has now been made part of the UDC.

During last week’s meeting, City Manager Charles Penny publicly thanked Racicot for his role, which Penny said included rewriting a “44-year-old ordinance,” and providing a model for the townhomes regulations while development continued.

“So I just wanted to publicly thank him for the work and the leadership that he provided, although we did pay for it,” Penny said. “I think he ought to live in Statesboro, and he’s done a great job for our city.”
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