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VOL. 119 | NO. 198 | Friday, October 28, 2005

Proposed Graham Development Draws Opposition

By Andy Meek

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NOT IN MY BACK YARD: Residents in the area near North Graham Street oppose a proposed infill development in the established East Memphis neighborhood. -- Photograph By Andy Meek

On a woodsy, two-acre patch of land not far from Grahamwood Elementary School, real estate developer Angelo Lagonia sees something else amid the old-growth trees, raccoons, squirrels and red-tailed hawk that populate the area.

To him, the property along North Graham Street is fertile ground for new homes. He knows the area's charm well. Lagonia lives near the site where he intends to build 11 homes with his partner, veteran home builder Ron Sklar. He just bought a home for his daughter around the corner, and he currently has two grandsons attending Grahamwood Elementary.

Neighborhood opponents. But the handmade signs displayed in several yards along North Graham are anything but supportive of Lagonia's plan. Several homeowners, including Ken and Janice Oliver, have banded together to fight the project in what has essentially become a battle between proponents of infill development and champions of preservation.

Opponents of the development argue that Lagonia - who is a member of the Memphis and Shelby County Land Use Control Board - plans to build homes that will wreck the rustic quality of their neighborhood. He is also making plans to put up 11 more homes on the east side of Graham.

"And this is extremely out of character for our neighborhood," said Ken Oliver, who shopped around for a house with his wife last year after living near the University of Memphis for more than 18 years. They now live on North Graham.

"I am afraid that the two developments planned for two lots will change the heart of the Grahamwood area," he said.

Not in my back yard. Many residents agree, and they have boiled down their frustrations in written slogans on signs displayed near the road, such as "Save the trees," and "No poorly planned development." Robin Marsh, another area homeowner, said residents have had at least one contentious meeting with Lagonia.

"I am afraid that the two developments planned for two lots will change the heart of the Grahamwood area."
- Ken Oliver
resident, Grahamwood neighborhood

She said the atmosphere was so highly charged that a compromise didn't even make it to the table. The debate could serve as a microcosm of one that's now front and center in Shelby County - are migrating populations or aggressive developers responsible for the county's irrepressible sprawl?

Lagonia, who recused himself from an LUCB vote on his first Graham project, blamed opposition to his new development on "NIMBY" objections - Not In My Back Yard.

"I've been doing this for 25 years now, and I know that when I come into a neighborhood, no matter what I'm going to do, no matter what the final outcome is, nobody wants to see me," he said. "But I have a vested interest in this neighborhood. The last thing in the world I'm going to do is have a negative impact or destabilize it.

"For goodness' sake, we're going to have millions of dollars invested in this neighborhood - why in the world would I do something to shoot myself in the foot? This is what our older neighborhoods need. They need new money coming in."

Area character. But not their neighborhood, insist Marsh and other residents, who have lived in the area for years and cherish its trees, open spaces and rising home values.

Marsh said some of the homes in Lagonia's new development will be 15 feet from her back fence line. Down the street, some of the homes will be only 5 feet from residents' fences.

"I have lived here since 1996 and have never, ever thought about going anywhere else," she said. "And this is not a neighborhood that's in a decline, it's really not. The houses sell very well, particularly along Graham.

"In fact, one person recently had his house on the market for sale by owner. He sold it in 10 days so that he could buy a house across the street from him. People want to stay in this neighborhood. And we're not opposed to development, but 11 zero-lot homes in a neighborhood that has no zero-lot homes is just ridiculous."

Residents are pointing to the area's special status as they make their case. Graham Street from Goodlett to Macon roads has been designated as one of 23 residential corridors within Memphis. Others include Central Avenue, Walnut Grove Road and Park Avenue.

Making a case. At a hearing before the LUCB, Lagonia offered to delay his application for one month to have time to make his case to residents.

"They were standing up there objecting to things that aren't true," he said. "We thought it was in everybody's best interest to just hold it for a month, get with the neighbors, actually show them pictures of houses, the whole nine yards. Our application is for 11 single-family, detached homes, and that's what we're going to put in."

In his career, Lagonia has had a hand in developing high-rise buildings, luxury home sites on Mud Island and residential subdivisions in Cordova, Bartlett, Hickory Hill and southeast Shelby County. Former Mayor Dick Hackett appointed him to the LUCB in 1991.

According to plans for the two projects, minimum lot size for homes on each of the two-acre sites on Graham ranges between 5,000 square feet and just over 6,000 square feet.

It might already be too late to sway the opinion of some area residents, however.

"If these two projects are built, I can foresee many homes for sale," Oliver said. "Ours will be among them."

PROPERTY SALES 71 233 2,852
MORTGAGES 74 171 1,954
BUILDING PERMITS 125 894 6,595
BANKRUPTCIES 34 206 1,183