Pine Lake council member tuned into land use

What makes Melanie Hammet break into song?

Love. Democracy. Planning and zoning.

The Pine Lake City Council member spent a month at an artistic retreat in Florida and composed six songs about land-use policy, a topic that tends to go unexamined in the songs of, say, Hank Williams. Or Paul Williams. Or even Lucinda Williams.

Perhaps those other songwriters missed an opportunity. Hammet, a professional musician and musical theater veteran with several CDs to her name, skips the geeky, jargony stuff about P&Z and sings about the human factor: how people connect to the land and each other.

Her songs are inspired by Pine Lake, a town of about 650 outside of Decatur once famous as a speed trap. Now it's known as a quirky, liberal town, a cross between "Northern Exposure" and "Andy of Mayberry." Several other council members are artists.

The professor's daughter was elected four years ago. After the 2000 presidential election, she decided "to get off the couch" and now wants to protect Pine Lake from urban encroachment and McMansions, though she admits that "in Pine Lake they're more like McNuggets."

One of her duties was slogging through a rewrite of the city codes. That didn't inspire any music, but it did teach her that the lingo found in zoning regulations tells how people relate — if you read between the lines.

"Even though the language is very esoteric, the subject is very personal," she said.

Hammet wrote her land-use songs last January at Seaside, a "new urbanism" town on the Florida Panhandle. The Seaside Institute, dedicated to the "smart growth" of communities, gave her a spot as an artist-in-residence. With a cottage and a stipend, Hammet went to work.

In "Anatomy of the Street Where You Live," she imagines the benefits of a well-designed road system: "Just enough shade just enough light/ Just enough room for the neighbors in the middle of a hot summer night/ Just enough room for a car to pass/ But it has to slo-ow down/ It's a perfect little street, a perfect little spot, a perfect little town."

Fellow council member Bitsy Pitts said the song nails the town's vibe. "It's so Pine Lake to me," Pitts said. "It's so neighborly."

Hammet has concluded that "most code is written to benefit cars. ... Then you start to say, 'Hey, this is kind of an emotional thing here. Where am I am in this planning and zoning?' "

Her response was "The Automobile Song (Car Tune)," about how a vehicle runs the driver's life.

"I drive my car to all its favorite places/I cannot wave at other people's faces/ Because I'm here behind the tinted glass/Because it likes to move so very fast/We don't go to the zoo or the ballet/ It likes a parking lot or the highway/ It likes the pavement underneath its wheels/The grass or sandy beach has no appeal/ And when it's ready for a little rest/I fill it up with gasoline, high test/And then I park it safe behind the walls/Of its own palace, the Garage Mahal/A-B-C-D-S-U-V, tell me what you think of me."

Hammet, who drives a 1986 BMW, said she'll eventually record the songs and is eager to play them in public. She's booked to perform in June at the Georgia Municipal Association conference in Savannah.

If you go, stand back. The city planners may rush the stage.