Many political leaders and grass roots organizations in Memphis today are advocating “smart growt,” “sustainable development,” and something called “new urbanism” as an answer to the ills of “urban sprawl,” which robs the core city of its vitality and extends costly urban services over low density settlements (can you say unfair tax?). Some people say these approaches are oxymorons! 

No matter what approach we adopt, the Memphis urban area is spreading outward because of sewer lines, roads, and zoning. Local governments create the locations for residences and businesses using this trilogy of public policy mechanisms. 

To curb urban sprawl these policies must be in sync and deny sprawl-type developments. Unfortunately, we may have cast the die for sprawl for many years to come. 

Sewers: Ugh! Do we have to? 

While septic tanks can be used to support buildings, these on-site waste disposal units limit growth to large lots, especially in the Memphis area due to our clay soils. These large lots do not have the negative effects of urban sprawl. 

For urban expansion to happen a network of sewerage collection lines must be laid with their ultimate destination the Mississippi River and huge treatment plants built to EPA standards. 

Memphis built two treatment plants in the 1970s at the end of the Nonconnah Creek and the Wolf/Loosahatchie rivers. Over the years urban expansion has been dependent on large sewer lines along these streams and their tributaries. The extent of their coverage determines where urban growth will occur. 

Some communities have their own sewer lines and treatment facilities, but Memphis has been the provider of sewer lines and treatment facilities for most of Shelby County and part of Desoto County in the Horn Lake Creek basin. 

In 1994 the Memphis City Council and the Shelby County Commission adopted an agreement called the “Balanced Growth Plan.”  On the one hand, Shelby County agreed to provide money to Memphis to help in revitalization, a paltry $2 million (and Memphians pay the majority of Shelby County taxes anyway). In return Memphis agreed to extend sewer lines into the Gray’s Creek basin located in east central Shelby County between Arlington and Collierville and extending from western Fayette County to Cordova, and create millions of dollars for developers. 

This plan is a curious policy with Memphis supporting sprawl and at the same time trying to revitalize areas being decimated by sprawl. 

The Gray’s Creek sewer plan created capacity for the complete urbanization of the last drainage basin in Shelby County and required construction of a parallel main line along the Wolf River. Bonded debt was incurred to build these lines, which will be paid off by increased charges on our MLG&W monthly bills. 

Desoto County is another matter all together. With the help of its congressman and earmarks, Desoto is on course to place sewer lines over every square inch of the county to attract population in the name of economic development. Their debt for schools and other public facilities will no doubt become as problematic as in Shelby County but will continue to pull population from Memphis. 

Result: Urban Sprawl 1, Smart Growth 0 

Roads: The Tail Wagging the Dog 

The Memphis urban area has been dominated by the needs of the automobile since the late 1940s when the early 20th century trolleys (light rail transit) were abandoned. 

In 1995, with the anticipation of the Interstate Highway System, Memphis produced a plan for roads showing I-40, I-55 and the I-240 beltway having a prominent role in the urban area expansion. 

An update of the 1955 plan was completed in 1969 which added Germantown Parkway, Nonconnah (Bill Morris) Parkway and an outer parkway loop that today is labeled as State Route 385 (aka I-269) and is to be an expressway not a parkway. 

Planners in 1969 argued that the outer parkway, which linked Shelby Forest, Arlington and Collierville was designed as a “pleasure” drive to allow Memphians the ability to access the countryside as was done in the early 1900s via the old parkway system. Another curiosity. 

In the 40 years since the 1969 plan, some planned roads have been removed (for example, I-40 through Overton Park and the Southern Ave. Expressway), but 385 (I-269) has remained and become a larger loop into northern Desoto County. 

The 1969 plan along with many updates over the years was produced by the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) whose board of directors consists of the chief executives (mayors) of Shelby, Desoto and Fayette counties and the mayors of municipalities located in the Memphis urban area plus Mississippi and Tennessee departments of transportation. 

The MPO holds open meetings but very few people attend or even know about the schedule. A very strong advisory group dominated by the Memphis Area Chamber of Commerce and developers push for increased road capacity further and further from Memphis. 

With outward growth enabled by road construction, daily commuting to downtown Memphis filled the I-240 loop and new lanes were added to a road originally designed to move interstate traffic around Memphis. Then more people moved to the suburbs. 

Then downtown businesses began to move to suburbs to be close to clients and employees and well…….. 

Result: Urban Sprawl 2, Smart Growth 0 

Zoning: Restriction on Private Property Use 

All of the sewers and all of the roads built to support sprawl can not beat the ultimate public policy for urban expansion – zoning. In fact zoning decisions by local governments often proceed road construction and force the roads to be built. 

Then somebody looks at population location trends and concludes that infrastructure (sewers and roads) must respond to these trends and the cycle starts again.

But what causes the trends? Zoning of course. 

In Shelby County the County Commission alone approves zoning changes in unincorporated places except those areas within 5 miles of Memphis’ border. Memphis, with its home rule charter, has been given the power by the state to regulate land development outside its boundary up to 5 miles. The other 6 municipalities in Shelby county do not have this power. 

Thus, the Memphis City Council and the Shelby County commission, most often against the recommendations of their professional planning staff, have independently agreed on zoning regulations that created Cordova growth (with the commercial development along Germantown Parkway) and Hickory Hill (with the now abandoned Hickory Ridge Mall and its replacement retail further east along Winchester). If either government had voted no, the development would not have happened. 

Of all the actions taken to support new land development and force the construction of new outlying schools, zoning has been the ultimate reason. Memphis could not say no and our budget problems in the County and City can be traced back to decades of zoning without considering the fiscal impact. 

Result: Urban Sprawl 3, Smart Growth 0 

Today many people now want to act regionally and create “smart development along the I-269 corridor”. Isn’t this the ultimate oxymoron?