It’s hard to imagine, but passage of the proposed Unified Development Code just got more important.

Yes, there’s the impact that the code could have in encouraging a walkable, sustainable community. But, more to the point, it could produce something even better – a more ethical, honest local government.

That’s because the most important benefit of the new code is that it would remove the source of so many problems in local government – the direct political influence that local legislators have over zoning and development and which some broker for financial favors.

Eliminate The Source

It is in depoliticizing this sullied process in Memphis and Shelby County that the proposed new code could be the most important most important reform of the system in 20 years, and in the wake of federal probes and constant reports about developer influence, a new code could kill off the problem at its food source.

As Jack Sammons and Myron Lowery on City Council and Mike Ritz on the County Board of Commissioners take the thankless jobs (at least in the eyes of many of their colleagues) of developing new ethics rules, we hope they’ll also spend some time figuring out what Council and Commission members need to do to get the new code passed. And without amendments that water down its impact on land use, correct the now-abused Planned Unit Developments (PUDs) process or improve the quality of decisions by letting professional planners make most of them.

For too long, the worst-kept secret in local government has been the shadowy relationships that some local legislators have with developers who dole out financial favors in return for dependable votes that frequently defy even a hint of subtlety.

Symptoms Of The Problem

The symptoms of the problem are equally obvious, and call for extreme action. There are 180 degree shifts in votes on PUD’s, zoning and annexation. There are strip clubs that never seem to file applications for building permits. There have been building permits issued after the fact for a homebuilder with political clout. There are plans for FedExForum that vanish from public offices. The Land Use Control Board is loaded up with developers and relatives of developers to the point that there is a grand total of one neighborhood representative on it. The Gray’s Creek sewer extension was developer welfare masquerading as enlighted growth policy. The plan for Germantown Parkway’s orderly development was never approved and it shows. Highway 385 will open on the eastern fringe of Shelby County with no masterplan for the area.

No, a new code won’t necessarily solve all of these problems, but it would send a powerful message that the times have changed and so must the culture and the old ways of doing business.

The proposed code is now reaching a crucial point in its development. It will soon be the subject of public hearings in preparation to be put on the agendas of the City Council and County Board of Commissioners for votes. It will quickly become apparent in these votes if the recent ethics controversies are producing any lasting change.

Putting Memphis On The Map

If local legislators approve the new code, their primary role is to approve the zoning districts map for the city and county. Once that map has been put in place, it’s then up to professional planners of the Office of Planning and Development to make decisions consistent with the overall map. For the first time in recent history, the public would not have to guess about future property uses.

In other words, land use issues would rest with the experts, and legislators can recover hours spent every month hearing and voting on zoning issues. This is particularly true for Memphis City Council, which, with the mayor’s urging, has come to see its primary responsibility as handling these zoning cases. While improving the integrity of the process with the new code is reason enough for supporting it, the added benefit of getting the Council to pay more attention to the many important issues that now seem to get second billing.

Soon, city and county governments will begin the hunt for someone to fill the vacant director of planning job in the Division of Planning and Development. While it’s hard enough to attract national caliber planners to Memphis because of its national reputation for developer-controlled sprawl and the burden of working for two governments, it will be next to impossible to get the caliber of planner that is needed here if the reform-minded code is voted down.

High Stakes

None of this will come easy. It is almost a certainty that developers will attempt to erode the impact of the proposed code, even to the point of suggesting that the green fields outside of Memphis shouldn’t have zoning at all. It’s precisely that “anything goes” attitude that has produced the sprawl that is unsustainable to the point that it threatens the solvency of Shelby County Government.

That’s why the stakes couldn’t be higher. The new code and a new director of planning could finally result in the changes that have long been needed to make sure that zoning and development decisions aren’t based on personal political considerations to the detriment of the coherent planning needed for the future of the community.