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VOL. 121 | NO. 242 | Friday, December 15, 2006

On And On It Goes: Word has it that Thomas Jr. won't show at next council meeting

By Andy Meek

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YEA OR NAY: On Tuesday, the Memphis City Council will have to decide if the latest real estate proposal by wealthy landowner William H. Thomas will pass muster. -- Daily News File Photo/David Yawn

Federal prosecutors dropped their bombshell a few days before the Memphis City Council met Dec. 5. Criminal complaints implicated two councilmen and a well-connected lobbyist in a money-for-votes scandal that, in at least one instance, apparently benefited wealthy landowner William H. Thomas Jr.

The fallout from the scandal, not surprisingly, cast a pall over the council's next public meeting. But when the body's Planning & Zoning Committee convened on Dec. 5, most council members present were dismayed to find themselves confronted with yet another land deal, in some ways similar to the one at the heart of the criminal complaints.

And, again, the landowner who stood to benefit was Thomas.

At the council's next meeting this Tuesday, the group will attempt to sort out Thomas' complicated - and, to some councilmen, questionable - real estate proposal. And while it's not directly connected to the land project that figured prominently in the recent criminal complaints, the two items easily could become intertwined.

Round two?

How that might happen is if Thomas himself shows up at City Hall Tuesday - though in most circles it's expected he won't - and thus opens himself up to be grilled by council members who have questions about his business practices.

For the first land deal, the one in which councilmen Edmund Ford and Rickey Peete are accused of taking thousands of dollars in cash payments to support, Thomas won approval to rezone a tract of land in southeast Memphis so he could build a billboard on it. The re-zoning was approved over the objections of both the Memphis and Shelby County Land Use Control Board and the city-county Office of Planning and Development.

For the project the council will consider on Tuesday, Thomas somehow got a small parcel of land he owned off Summer Avenue included in a separate developer's proposal. If the council approved the whole thing, Thomas would have then successfully circumvented the usual route toward getting land approved for a billboard project.

"We haven't seen the legal opinions yet that we asked for from the city attorney and the council's attorney, which are what I'm really interested in," said council member Carol Chumney, an attorney herself.

Follow the signs

Here's why council members found it necessary to seek legal advice to get a handle on Thomas' latest project.

Real estate company Grace Development is seeking approval for a 7.6-acre planned development at the southeast corner of the Wolf River and Summer Avenue. The site is currently home to federal government administrative offices, Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Immigration Services facilities, commercial offices and two billboards.

The purpose of the application, according to a company representative, is to permit the sale of individual land parcels within the development. The company already has a buyer or buyers lined up and it's ready to proceed with the sale. All of that is what Grace Development took before the City Council Dec. 5.

Here's where it gets complicated. Though it wasn't spelled out completely in the company's written application, Thomas had convinced OPD officials to merge a parcel of land he owned adjacent to Grace Development's site with the entire zoning proposal.

Because of its inclusion with the larger planned development the council might have approved creating, that would have then made Thomas' previously useless lot legally able to accommodate a billboard. Thomas applied for a billboard permit for that lot on Oct. 3, the same day nine city council members voted to approve a billboard project of Thomas' elsewhere.

That project was the real estate deal identified in the recent criminal complaints against Ford and Peete.

Fancy footwork

OPD officials sent a letter to City of Memphis chief administrative officer Keith McGee within the past few days explaining how Thomas' land got tacked onto Grace Development's project. Council members and other people involved in the discussions were dubious, to say the least.

"He forced his way in," said Brenda Solomito, the land planner who's representing Grace Development. "OPD didn't require it until he told them they had to do it. My client didn't want to oppose OPD and reluctantly agreed to it at the Land Use Control Board.

"However, if my client had said, 'No, I'm denying him access,' OPD could have been in a position to reject the case."

It's impossible to know Thomas' thinking behind the real estate shuffle for the simple reason that he's not responding to phone calls, and the once-ubiquitous figure at City Hall is keeping a low profile. Joe Cooper, the lobbyist Thomas had paid to represent him and help get his projects approved, is entangled in a money laundering scandal and the subject of a federal criminal complaint.

Thomas didn't show up when his project came before councilmen Dec. 5 and is not expected to on Tuesday, either. To some who have tangled with him in the past, that's par for the course, they say.

Catch me if you can ...

Thomas is known to shy away from the spotlight, but he's also rarely hesitated to sue or attempt to block the plans of his billboard competitors, which he's done to varying effects.

"He's kind of like Proteus, the Greek god," said Memphis attorney David Wade. "You've got to pin him down before he changes forms on you."

Earlier this year, Shelby County was looking to unload some surplus real estate along Interstate 40. Thomas and billboard businessman Randall Swaney both bid for the land. There was a bid-off, and Swaney ultimately won the site, which he's since gotten re-zoned in preparation for building a digital billboard there.

Thomas handled a nearby piece of real estate he owned the same way. Nevertheless, when Swaney appeared before the city council earlier this year to get his site properly zoned, Thomas showed up too. He objected, but to no avail.

PROPERTY SALES 56 56 9,658
MORTGAGES 49 49 10,665
BUILDING PERMITS 212 212 21,170
BANKRUPTCIES 49 49 6,157