There are times when Tennessee’s annexation laws seem as much a curse as a blessing.

And because it’s hard to decide which category the proposed annexation of Southeast Shelby County falls into, it’s time to put it on hold for now.

On balance, there’s no question that Tennessee’s progressive attitude toward annexation is sound public policy, largely because there is a direct connection between these kinds of annexation laws and the financial solvency of cities.

The pitfall is that often, the prospects of annexation inspire a false sense of security in Memphis city government.

Propping Up The Population

That’s because city officials are able to prop up Memphis’ population and its tax revenues by taking in more territory. Without this ability to annex, Memphis population would likely be about half of what it is today, and the serious problems in the city’s midst could not be masked by new taxes and new citizens.

While we are supporters of the state law on annexation, Memphis needs to set aside its quest for new land for now and prove that it has strategies to address the cancerous problems of the urban core – the hollowing out of the middle class, the bipolar economic divisions, and the neighborhoods that seem almost to be collapsing while we are looking at them.

But our concern for the proposed annexation is about more than misplaced priorities. More to the point, it’s about a process that has been tainted by the undue influence of developers in local government.

The annexation boundaries for the Southeast Shelby County annexation would warm the heart of a long-time Congressional gerrymanderer. It’s telling that the annexation boundaries wrap around property owned by favored developers and zig zags like a frat boy on Saturday night. All in all, it’s a sad indictment of the lack of objectivity that should lie at the heart of any annexation proposal.

Reprieves For The Few

Put another way, the annexation proposal is a testament to the powerful and well-connected. If you have enough money to live in Southwind, you have already successfully put off annexation until the next decade. If you are politically-connected developers, you are about to do the same.

But the rank and file have no such privilege. And to make matters worse, some City Council members treat the future Memphians in Southeast Shelby County as if they are parasites who deserve little more than contempt.

It’s a shameless situation that Memphis finds itself in. And its citizens (and even its future citizens) deserve better.

Sadly, some City Council members seem oblivious to the water dripping on stone syndrome that actions like this have on the public. Over time, even a bedrock of support slowly is eroded away, disillusioned by the political impact of insiders, the rhetoric over substance responses, and a lack of impartial analysis on key city issues.

Failure Of Growth Management

When City Council weighs its decision by measuring whether the annexation is a tax windfall or a tax drain, it engages in a shallow evaluation, ignoring whether it is capable of dealing with the critical problems facing the larger city it will govern.

What is most clear in annexation debates is the abject failure of the process set in motion by state law Chapter 1101 to set urban growth boundaries. The purpose of that law was to encourage and require counties and the cities within them to sit down and cooperatively develop a blueprint for the future land use of their areas.

Here, that founding intent was ignored, because state law also said Shelby County, Memphis, and the smaller municipalities would satisfy the law by ratifying their existing annexation agreements. As a result, there was never a serious discussion about growth management, protection of green space, and the community’s response to sprawl.

In the end, all but 48.74 square miles (small corners in Northeast and Northwest Shelby County) were identified as urban growth areas, meaning that Memphis, at 317 square miles at the time of Chapter 1101, would eventually swell to 489 square miles.

Choosing Memphis’ Future

But, because so many people continue to vote with their feet, despite this dramatic increase in land area, the population will remain essentially flat. Surely that fact alone should be enough to get the attention of Memphis City Council, because unless they are willing to accept a city characterized by miles and miles of abandoned housing and boarded up buildings, they should turn their attention to increasing the public’s confidence in their plans to reverse the urban decline and the crime rise.

Metropolitan growth is shaped by market forces and public policies, and sadly the latter has always fallen victim to the former in Memphis and Shelby County. Brookings Institution research concludes that key public policies are land use regulations on local and regional levels; patterns of infrastructure investment, such as roads and sewers; and patterns of open space protection and acquisition programs.

Here, our obsession with DeSoto County creates an “anything goes” philosophy of suburban development. We convince ourselves (once again) that somehow our challenges are so different from anyone else’s that we have no alternative but to allow developers to do whatever they like. After all, we say, no other city has to deal with competition across state lines like Memphis and Shelby County.

However, the truth is that one in three large metro areas in the U.S. straddles state lines, and most of them have managed to develop growth plans that are balanced and rational.

If They Can Do It…

Meanwhile, some rapidly urbanizing areas like Orlando and Seattle have managed to inject some growth management strategies into the process. In Seattle, local elected officials showed genuine leadership in adopting a different growth model for the region in the midst of rapid growth, a model that called for containing urban sprawl through the use of regional boundaries and a regional open space system; organizing urban development into compact communities; protecting rural areas by promoting the use of rural lands for farming, forestry, recreation, and other uses; providing a greater variety of housing choices in all parts of the region; and creating a regional transportation strategy that frequents on high-speed bus and rail transit.

In taking this action, Seattle altered the future of its region in a shorter period of time than any other metro in the U.S.

Meanwhile, here, annexation is pursued with little regard for a long-term vision for the county, and as a result, Memphis runs the risk of strangling its future to death with the lure of new land and new taxpayers. That’s because without the counter-balance of growth management strategies, it’s hard to see a future that’s not more of the same – deteriorating neighborhoods, vast swaths of abandoned neighborhoods between downtown and East Memphis, and public services stretched thinner and thinner.

Of course, the same people whose policies have caused some of the problems can also change things for the better. At any time, Memphis City Council can set the standard for local leadership by stepping back, gaining some perspective, and convening a process to consider a different future for Memphis and Shelby County.

Responsible Leadership

Maybe, with this kind of leadership, it’s possible to even imagine the kind of phenomenon taking place in Portland, Oregon, where Tacoma has asked to be annexed into the larger city because of its reputation for responsible, visionary government.

We hasten to add that we are not saying annexation is not the appropriate policy for City of Memphis to pursue. During the 1990s, of the about 400 cities that could annex additional land, 250 did so, increasing their land area by increase of 11 percent.

It may be Pollyannish, but we’re still hopeful enough to think that Memphis City Council can become leaders for the region, not just prisoners of narrow political interests that drive sprawl and urban decay.

The first sign of this would be the delay of the proposed Southeast Shelby County annexation.