Madison Square

Madison Square
Savannah Under Fire archaeologists work in Madison Square, Savannah, GA, surrounded by visitors and citizens interested in our dig.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Where is the archaeology in the Unified Zoning Ordinance for Savannah-Chatham County?

The Metropolitan Planning Commission (MPC) is to be lauded for its hard work on compiling the draft of the Unified Zoning Ordinance (UZO). While parts of it are sweeping and comprehensive, at least one part needs addressing, along with serious additions and modifications. Protections for historic structures are detailed and supported by specific ordinances that outline necessary actions, compliance and penalties; all to support the preservation of Savannah-Chatham County’s historic fabric which adds to the quality of life of residents and increases the economic potential of the tourism industry. It is all the more dismaying to see that the new UZO has no such provisions for the important non-renewable archaeological sites in the community. While archaeology is mentioned occasionally, specific ordinances to protect such sites or to mitigate the damage should they be adversely affected by development are non-existent, except in the rare cases of Section 106 compliance activity. In those few cases, the projects are separate from MPC Board of Review anyway.

The present UZO draft maintains the status quo regarding Savannah-Chatham County’s important historical archaeological sites. Translated, this means that archaeological sites will continue to be obliterated at an alarming rate, a rate that only increases with improvements to the economy. Have any of the Zoning Districts or Overlay Districts considered archaeological resources, or are they all based on land use and current standing structures? Savannah-Chatham County has a large and varied assortment of archaeological sites ranging from 12,000 year old prehistoric sites to colonial sites to 19th century sites. These offer the same, and even additional opportunities as the historic standing structures provide. Why is the MPC protecting the latter and not the former? There are ordinances about what color paint and what kind of windows historic sites should have, yet wholesale destruction of archaeological sites continue unabated and unquestioned. Structures in areas designated “local historic properties” are protected from demolition, but archaeological sites in these same areas are not (3.19.2). The Historic Preservation Plans are supposed to include “a description of the historic buildings, structures, sites and objects within the proposed property” [3.19.3.i.(3)]. To do so for archaeological sites that will be in the areas requires historical research and field survey. Will that be done, or will the properties “get a pass” on identifying and protecting these existing resources? While it is easy to pawn off the responsibility of oversight to the state level, a comprehensive UZO should address these issues locally and offer the tools and mandates for true protections. Without such protections written as ordinances, activities that have adverse effects to archaeological sites will be randomly reviewed, and will come before the public piece-meal, requiring citizen watch-dogs in lieu of a competent city-county plan that takes responsibility for the resources in its domain and works actively rather than reactively to protect those resources.

Archaeological sites are not renewable. Once damaged or destroyed they cannot be restored or rehabilitated or reconstructed like a historic structure can be. Yet archaeological sites provide integrity to communities, a real sense of authenticity to our past, a chance for community pride and engagement, educational opportunities for all citizens, and a proven benefit to tourism and the economy. By failing to create ordinances to protect archaeological sites, the MPC is not only losing these opportunities now, but denying such opportunities to future generations who cannot benefit from these archaeological sites after they are destroyed.

The mentions of cultural resources or archaeology in the current UZO are basically nods to the subject with no real protections, incentives, education, or understanding. Here are just a few more examples. In Article 10 “Natural, Historic and Cultural Resources” the only time “cultural resources” is even mentioned is in the title of the article. In Section 10.4 there are buffers and setbacks for natural resources, but nothing protecting cultural ones, which often occur in similar environments.

Most archaeological sites lie undiscovered and unrecorded, thus both unappreciated and unprotected by the community whose cultural heritage they represent. They are especially vulnerable to the ravages of neglect and development activity. Communities can prevent the loss of their archaeological heritage by acknowledging and acting upon their responsibility to protect it. Indeed, many communities across the United States have implemented ordinances, regulations, and permit systems … “(Kearns and Kirkorian 1991).

Cities and counties throughout the U.S. have come to realize the responsibility and benefits in protecting the archaeological site under their stewardship. A few of the many examples include:

  • Alexandria, VA
  • Baltimore, MD
  • Albuquerque, NM
  • Beaufort County, SC
  • 10 cities and counties in Florida, including St. Augustine
  • Calvert County, Maryland
  • St. Louis, Missouri

Protection of archaeological sites can result in economic development of blighted urban areas; increased revenue streams through new tourism avenues; a source of community pride developed from an understanding of a sense of place; public participation in community history; and increased educational opportunities.

Metropolitan Planning Commission, please don’t waste this precious opportunity.

Thank you,

Rita Elliott

Education Coordinator and Research Associate

The LAMAR Institute

Savannah, GA


Kearns, Betsy and Cece Kirkorian

1991 “Protecting Sites at the Local Level: The Responsibility and the Legal Authority Towns Have to Protect Their Archaeological Resources” in Protecting the Past (George S. Smith and John E. Ehrenhard, eds.) available online at

1 comment:

  1. I could not have said this better myself!-D.T. Elliott, Esquire