Last week, The Commercial Appeal called the vote by the Shelby County Board of Commissioners on a conservation easement for Shelby Farms Park a “big step in preserving the park forever.”
More accurately, it was one step forward and two steps back.
Once again, given the opportunity to take definitive action to protect the park’s 4,500 acres for the public for all time – including 900 acres controlled by Agricenter International with no apparent public purpose – Shelby County Government couldn’t quite pull the trigger. In the end, the commissioners approved the conservation easement, but put off its implementation until some time in the future and only if and when a master plan for the park’s future is approved.
It’s too bad, because on its own merit, the master plan aside, the conservation easement is an idea whose time has come. It’s a tool used to protect natural resources and preserve scenic open space by limiting the uses of the land to protect its conservation value. The easements are gaining popularity, and in a recent five-year period, the amount of land protected by them tripled to 5 million acres. Unfortunately, because of the commissioners, that amount didn’t grow to 5,004,500 acres.
It was déjà vu all over again, a flashback from four years ago when the visionary plan of former First Tennessee Bank chairman Ron Terry blew up in the face of the rantings by longtime Commissioner Walter Bailey. As the clock winds down on the last days of Commissioners Bailey’s 35 years on the county legislative body, he proved once again that he still has the rhetorical firepower to dynamite a good idea.
Of course, it didn’t help that whoever drew up the Wharton Administration’s plan to get the easement passed gave all appearances of being politically tone deaf. It’s a mystery why the administration, in the last days of this commission’s term, gave Commissioner Bailey a platform to attack the proposal with the same vigor that he showed four years ago.
With only 16 days left in their terms of office when the vote was taken and with new commissioners set to take their places, there is the very real prospect of new attitudes and a new interest in establishing stronger cooperative relationships with Mayor A C Wharton and his administration. That’s why to many, it seemed that the wiser time to consider the long-needed protection of this irreplaceable public land was in the early months of the next board’s term.
It’s a notion that seems on its face to make good sense, because even if the current board of commissioners had approved the easement to take effect immediately – as Mayor A C Wharton originally advocated before amending the resolution in the face of the onslaught led by Commissioner Bailey – it requires action by the next board of commissioners to pass amendments to finalize the easement anyway.
Politics Before Parks
Often, it’s hard in the heat of the political battle to evaluate options clear-headedly, because it’s becomes all about who’s winning and who’s losing, but perhaps the better part of valor would have been to ask for a continuance of the resolution once its support showed signs of collapsing. The unamended conservation easement wasn’t perfect, but it would have gotten something in place to protect the park for the first time in its history, and the watered down version that was passed left the clear impression that once again, the priorities of county government are politics before parks.
On their side, commissioners contend that some basic questions of theirs were not answered well, and this stumble created a vacuum into which opponents rushed. It was in this environment that Commissioner Bailey’s criticisms gained traction and slowly swayed colleagues to his side.
In the midst of feverish vote counting that showed the entire easement was at risk of going down in defeat, the compromise emerged for approving the easement now, but with it to taking effect some time in the future when (or if) the master plan is approved. If the easement remains as it is, it delays the easement taking effect until 18 to 24 months from now.
It was a vote that left a sour taste in the mouths of many park advocates who have invested in a new spirit of cooperation with county government by cooperating (or at least withholding their judgment) with the master planning process and compromising to reach agreement on Kirby Parkway through the park (an agreement that was the best outcome). The reward for their compromises and their good will, they thought, was passage of the easement.
No Comfort Level
Instead, they see the conservation easement as one more bait and switch, and some argue that there is no reason to continue to try to be a partner with the public sector. To some, the approval of the conservation easement isn’t cold comfort; it’s no comfort at all, and the vote is proof that a more confrontational, adversarial attitude is in order.
It would be unfortunate if that takes place, because it seems likely that the Wharton Administration recognizes the political powder keg that is building and will take some action to resolve the problem.
It seems clear that Mayor Wharton’s political logic at the board of commissioners’ meeting was his compromise ensured that something would be approved at that time to move forward the easement, and at least it would take effect upon approval of the master plan. The suspicions by many long-time park advocates – including those who were responsible for it remaining public land in the first place – runs deep, however, and to them, the political machinations on the easement only portends more political problems ahead for the master plan itself.
As they rightly point out, there are a number of critical obstacles that have to now be cleared before the easement becomes law – a master planning firm needs to be hired, the master planning process needs to be launched, park governance needs to be resolved, the process needs to avoid sabotage by the Agricenter, and the board of commissioners finally have to approve the plan and turn over park management to a private nonprofit as recommended by the county’s “efficiency study” of two years ago. It seems to many like an awful lot of hurdles that have to be cleared to finally reach the ultimate destination of a conservation easement.
While it only seems logical to administration officials that the master plan will be created within the context of the conservation easement, there is widespread uneasiness about moving ahead without the easement firmly in place and giving Agricenter International 18-24 months to water down the master plan’s recommendations for something truly visionary.
There are times when observers scratch their head at the zeal in which Agricenter defends its bean fields. It’s essentially been a grudging party to the master planning process, and were it not for Mayor Wharton’s personal investment in the committee process that’s producing it, they would likely have already declared war on it and trotted out the same old faces from back in the day – including Tennessee Lieutenant Governor John Wilder – to argue that they are engaged in God’s work, and it’s unreasonable to suggest that there are better public uses for most of their acreage, rather than as the private preserve of a nonprofit whose mission became irrelevant a decade ago.
Of concern to many is that with a window of opportunity while the master plan is being developed, Agricenter could proceed with plans to build even more unsightly buildings on the land or begin construction on facilities that would make more sense in other parts of the park.
With Friends Like These
Sadly, this board of commissioners leaves office without doing anything substantive to help support or preserve county government’s premier natural asset. This lack of understanding was abundantly clear in comments by Commissioner Julian Bolton. In opposing an easement, he said, “Everybody needs to understand what we’re doing here. It’s irrevocable, for all time.”
Exactly, commissioner, exactly.