If only Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland had been in office 35 years ago.
Perhaps, he would not have signed the agreement that supercharged the sprawl that took Shelby County Government to the verge of bankruptcy and in the end dealt a blow to City of Memphis government itself.
This week, Mr. Strickland decided to reverse long-standing sewer policy that ultimately took our eye off the ball in this community. Rather than focus on existing Memphis neighborhoods, we instead looked to prepare unincorporated areas for annexation.
Ultimately, it was a shell game driven by developers and the many elected officials in Memphis and Shelby County on the receiving end of their campaign contributions. At the time, they were successful in convincing our community that subsidizing the biggest population relocation in county history was actually “growth.”
The slippery slope began when Henry Loeb was mayor of Memphis. In 1969, he signed an agreement with county government that called for City of Memphis to “assume all construction, operation, maintenance and treatment of sanitary and industrial sewers and sewage within the city of Memphis and County of Shelby and in consideration thereof shall receive all monthly sewer service changes.”
The Slippery Slope
It was a time when the unincorporated area outside Memphis was not under heavy development, but all that was to change dramatically about the time that voters approved the restructure of Shelby County Government in 1974 and created a new position – the county mayor. The new position eliminated the fragmented, often conflicting bureaucracy in county government, but it also put one person with the power to change policy and open up the cash register to help developers.
It’s unlikely that there would have been intense development if developers had been required to pay the costs of infrastructure, such as roads and sewers. However, it is no hyperbole to say that developers at the time ruled city and county governments. It is impossible to think of something they wanted that they did not get – and they got county government to pay for the roads they needed and city government to extend the sewers that made them millions in profits.
Until 1969, Memphis’ sewer policies were similar to a municipality like Germantown: sewers were only extended subdivision by subdivision. As a result, city government was in the driver’s seat because it controlled the sewers that led developers to ask Memphis to annex them.
With political contributions at risk, Memphis City Council was persuaded by developers that extending sewer lines was an investment in its own future since these areas could be annexation. So, rather than approving subdivision by subdivision, Memphis’ changed sewer policy to promise extensions anywhere and everywhere in the unincorporated county.
Memphis Loses Its Negotiating Position
Along the way, it turned Memphis’ strong position on its head. With the guarantee of sewers, developers got their sewer extensions, but the buyers of the houses organized against Memphis when it came time for annexation.
More to the point, the outcome was that it was Memphians who provided 70% of county property tax revenues funding for sprawl and disinvesting in their own neighborhoods. Or put another way, Memphians were investing in their own neighborhoods’ declines.
In 1996, Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton (who a few years later paid $13,000 to extend sewers to his new Banneker Estates home) expressed concern about the sewer agreement to Shelby County Mayor Jim Rout and suggested that he was reluctant to approve sewer extensions into the 58 square miles of Gray’s Creek. On the other side of the Civic Center, pressure to open up the area was led by Jackie Welch, the most politically plugged in developer and close friend of Mayor Rout.
At the time, the Gray’s Creek area (roughly bordered by Cordova on the west, Fayette County on the east, Wolf River on the South, and Highway 64 on the north) was 65% agricultural and 30% residential. The majority of the residents – 56.8% – had moved there since 1985 and 85.9% moved there from within Shelby County.
Shelby County Represents Developers
Developers hardly needed to negotiate directly with City of Memphis government to open up development because Shelby County Government was representing their interests aggressively as it pursued an agreement that led to the Gray’s Creek Sewer Interceptor.
The way was cleared in 1996 when Shelby County Government and City of Memphis entered into the misleadingly-named “Balanced Growth Agreement” that called for Memphis to extend sewers to open up the Gray’s Creek basin for development in return for county government’s promise to invest $2 million for development in Memphis.
That Shelby County Government would put up its own money to open up the area for developers says volumes about the political dynamics of the issue.
As part of that agreement, City of Memphis appointed a committee – which unsurprisingly was weighted toward developer-friendly members – to make recommendations for the future of the Gray’s Creek area. Creation of the committee indicated how Memphis was motivated by the notion that it was preparing an area for future annexation.
In the end, the developers again got what they wanted, and it’s been generally thought that county government never paid its full $2 million to city government.
In 1998 and 2001, Shelby County Government undertook studies by consultants to determine if new residential development was a boon for its bottom line. It was concluded that every new $175,000 single family home cost Shelby County Government $4,000 a year for 20 years in public services, primarily schools and roads, and that it takes about 6,000 square feet of commercial/industrial development to offset the deficit to Shelby County produced by one residential unit.
Developers got wind of the study and complained so loudly that Shelby County deep-sixed it.
All of this brings us to last year when the Tennessee General Assembly – with the support of Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell, who had abandoned almost 40 years of neutrality by county government in annexation issues – stripped Memphis’ extraterritorial power. It seemed the second step in a plan to strip powers from Memphis: Step one, require voters in annexed areas to approve their annexation, and step two, strip Memphis’ extraterritorial powers, and now we’re at step three, deannexation.
For decades, extraterritorial jurisdiction meant that Memphis had to approve or disapprove developments five miles from the city’s borders. In other words, Memphis City Council had the power to approve projects outside its city limits but generally voted to approve projects on the belief that Memphis would eventually be annexing the area.
Shelby County’s reversals in annexation policy and on the exterritorial power was in a word, shameful. If Memphis had known that it would not be able to annex these areas, it never would have approved the sewer extensions or the projects in its extraterritorial areas.
The consequences of sprawl in triggering the greatest relocation of Memphis population in the modern history of Shelby County are well-documented, so we won’t dwell on them again here, except to say that some of the loudest anti-Memphis voices in Cordova flippantly say they don’t need anything from Memphis – street lights, a library, a community center, parks, etc. – but the fact remains that their neighborhoods only exist because Memphis made it possible.
In this way, changing the sewer policy for the unincorporated area of Shelby County is nothing short of poetic justice. If Shelby County thinks developers still need sewers, it can pay for them or get developers to do so.
That’s why we support Memphis when it creates or changes policies that strengthen the city’s ability to compete for development, to increase its density, and to create revenues through growth rather than higher taxes.
It’s Memphis That Matters
We expect developers to howl. They always do.
As developer Kevin Hyneman said in the wake of the policy change: I don’t think this is the right way to promote development in the city of Memphis. It’s going to drive people to DeSoto County.”
Hopefully, someone will give him a map. The policy only applies to unincorporated Shelby County – not Memphis. And if we were expecting developers and the sprawl they produced to save us, we’ve already learned how misguided that is and we’re long past being gullible enough to buy into developers’ talking points.
While we wish that the Memphis sewer policy had been based on smart growth in past decades, it’s never too late to do the right thing. It is unquestionably right that Memphis should put its own infrastructure needs first and save its incentives for its own growth.
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