The neighbors are at it again. Tour guides and tour company owners like myself have already spent more than a year dodging the choler lobbed at us by Historic District residents. Looks like the house museums are up next. Guess it's their turn. I don't mind the reprieve, frankly. I'm being a little unfair, I know. The downtown residents are often my ideological allies, such as when they furiously defended their turf against the encroachment of double-decker tour buses. That prevented a massively stupid development, utterly inappropriate to this setting, while also eliminating another potential competitor for me. Denizens of downtown also vocally opposed the possibility of a cruise ship terminal along our waterfront, which probably would have been no less disastrous for us than it has been for Charleston. I do think City Council would have reached that conclusion on their own, but it's still nice to know someone's got an eye on them. I love Savannah too and find comfort knowing it is inhabited by these legionnaires of legality who will leap to the city's defense at the tiniest provocation and save me the trouble of rattling my own saber. (I don't have one.)
Sometimes my allies become my enemies, though, as a result of our differing requirements: I use the Historic District to earn a living and they use it to live in. While tour operators sometimes make the mistake of dismissing residents' needs or simply having no manners while on the job, downtown residents sometimes make the mistake of being peevishly possessive and misdirected in their ire, which has led to the present kerfuffle with the house museums.
The Savannah Morning News ran this article, "Issues arise with historic home," on July 17. The follow-up ran in Sunday's paper: "Museum operators wary of potential ordinance change". Basically, it's been all party-party at the Harper-Fowlkes House over on Orleans Square for two years and the people who live nearby are "fed up" (as the two articles repeatedly state). They got the City onto it and the Harper-Fowlkes House Trustees were cited for breaking the Savannah Zoning Ordinance. As it turns out, it is illegal for the museums to lease themselves out for private events because they do not count as "assembly halls" under the definition spelled out in the ordinance, which dates from 1960. The first article cites Metropolitan Planning Commission staffers calling it an "error... of omission". It also says that nobody ever enforced the prohibition except when there were complaints.
Ok, let's deal with the legal issues on this one first, then I'll get into the financial problems. The people living near the Harper-Fowlkes House or any other museum have every right to be annoyed when that venue hosts disruptive events. However, I think the neighbors on Orleans Square are mistaken in coming down so hard on the Harper-Fowlkes House Trustees, which were guilty only of rudeness and amended their booking practices in February. The real problems here are 1) the City's failure to update a 53 year old ordinance that was written at a time when no sane person would want to have a wedding or party of any sort in downtown Savannah and 2) the City's failure to enforce it's own crap rules until somebody compels them to do so. Lackadaisical enforcement of existing ordinances is also a problem in the tourism industry. Along that line, Adam Van Brimmer (the columnist) pointed out in Sunday's article that use of the Charles Morris Center in Trustees Garden for special events is also illegal under the current rules. Charles Morris developed that area expressly for the purpose of hosting special events! Did no one review the paperwork when he was building it? I mean, there is a ton of permitting and bureaucratic hoop-jumping involved in restoration and new construction and nobody at the City realized, "Hey wait a minute- this compound's very reason for existing is illegal"? Seriously? And house museums all over the Historic District have been hosting weddings and receptions with no complaints for years. I don't think any of the curators even knew it was illegal (or at least none are copping to it), and who can blame them if the City has never enforced this law before? So, neighbors of the Harper-Fowlkes House, while it was wrong of the museum to ignore your initial complaints, the real problem here is that we are all saddled with a dumb and outdated ordinance and the City has no desire to enforce it anyway.
Your grievances having been acknowledged, what is it you want, downtown neighbors? The Harper-Fowlkes House made the initial mistake of setting few restrictions on event hours and noise, probably because they lacked experience handling that kind of thing. The proposed amendment to the ordinance which is under consideration now would set hours for music, delivery and breakdown of equipment, and require each historic property to petition the Zoning Board of Appeals for every event. That sounds alright to me, but the attorney representing the spurned inhabitants of Perry Street is quoted as saying it "doesn't protect the neighbors" without any elaboration. That was in the first article, but the second one provides no further clarification. What is that supposed to mean? And is the lawyer actually being vague or is this just a case of bad reporting? Because I really have no idea what the problem is and it makes the people involved seem vindictive and childish.
I have no doubt some of the aggrieved individuals are making their gripe without having a proper idea of how the museums function and what they require in order to keep functioning. Tour guides have encountered the same problem- people making counter productive proposals because they don't know how the industry works. One of the neighbor ladies is quoted as saying, about the Harper-Fowlkes House, "The house that once had been a hallowed hall became a setting for loud, even raucous parties in the courtyard." First of all, I hate when I hear tired old phrases like "hallowed hall." Almost nothing we now think of as a "hallowed hall" ever actually was, much less a building that used to be somebody's house. People lived in there. And let me tell you, no one knows how to party like 19th-century high-society! The underwear was crotchless and all the drugs were legal, so you just work that equation out on your own. But that misperception is a minor personal peeve and has nothing to do with this legal conflict, really.
Time to talk about money. The perilous thing about this quarrel is it endangers a vital revenue stream for local museums. Where do people think the money comes from to maintain these houses? The people who own historic property downtown must have an idea how much their homes cost them. I would expect them to have more sympathy for curators who have to magic up the money to maintain large houses and gardens while also minimizing the compounding damage from thousands of visitors tramping through every year. I'll bet you a dollar at least some of the angry neighbors who started this legal action assume museums are able to cover their costs with only admission fees and the money they get from hosting weddings and stuff is just "extra". Luckily, the article from August 4th cited some real numbers to combat that impression: the Harper-Fowlkes House made $90,000 off rentals last year, but still faces a $70,000 shortfall this year; rentals make up 5% of the Davenport House's revenue; and the Telfair Museum stages 50 external events a year that subsidize 150 educational programs it presents all year long. Several other museums in town are considering renting themselves out for special occasions because they need the money, so a lot of people have their eye on how City Council updates the ordinance.
So, I hope City Council comes through on this one (they get things right sometimes) and works up a satisfactory amendment. They've already gotten off to a blazing start by... postponing action for another six weeks. Well... the slower they move, the easier it is to catch them before they do something stupid.