VOL. 130 | NO. 73 | Wednesday, April 15, 2015
By Amos Maki
For years, Judge Larry E. Potter has had to juggle a challenging court docket that included thousands of traffic citations and animal abuse cases along with the blight and neglect cases typically associated with the court.
Judge Larry E. Potter has presided over Shelby County’s Environmental Court since 1983. Beginning next week, Potter will go full-time with blight and neglect cases in a new courtroom at 201 Poplar Ave.
(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)
Even after the recession created a tidal wave of vacant or foreclosed properties across Memphis and Shelby County, exacerbating an already vexing problem, the Shelby County General Sessions Environmental Court judge was only able to devote a fraction of his time to the issue.
Each year, the division handles about 45,000 cases. That meant Potter was only able to devote one full day and two half days each week to property blight and neglect cases. That all changes next week when Environmental Court is expected for the first time to begin operating full time, five days a week.
“What we’re going to have is a full-time Environmental Court that meets every day and is county-wide and it is going to be one of the first in the United States,” said Potter, 67, before one particularly busy Thursday afternoon that included nearly 60 anti-blight cases filed by the city of Memphis.
Shelby County provided Potter with a court room exclusively for Environmental Court on the 10th floor of the Criminal Justice Center at 201 Poplar Ave. Potter will spend most of his time there while three Referees handle the balance of the cases in Division 14.
Potter said Shelby County needed a full-time Environmental Court because of the immense challenges facing the city and county.
A 2010 study by the Center for Community Building and Neighborhood Action at the University of Memphis found that nearly a quarter of the city's properties violated the housing code for environmental, cosmetic and structural conditions.
The epidemic created the need for more legal action, flooding Division 14 with even more cases. Since 2010, the city of Memphis alone has filed 839 lawsuits against the owners of blighted properties under Tennessee’s Neighborhood Preservation Act.
“All you have to do is drive through North Memphis, South Memphis, Hickory Hill, Raleigh and Frayser and there’s your answer,” said Potter. “Blight is becoming a huge problem and what many people don’t understand, and I’ve been preaching this for 33 years, is there’s a direct correlation between blight and crime and economics.”
Potter said it’s an insidious problem, one where blighted properties drag down the value of surrounding homes and businesses and create an aura of hopelessness and desperation. Responsible property owners may not be able to get a loan or sell a home or business located near blighted properties. If they are able to sell, the problem property has likely lowered their property values.
“We’re talking about something that not only affects people’s lives but their wallets,” said Potter. “What we’re talking about are quality-of-life issues.”
Potter, who does not hide his distaste for rogue property owners in court and is known to use quotes or quips to get his points across, said another reason it was important for environmental court to operate full time is because of the sometimes complicated nature of the cases, which can involve repeat offenders or absentee landlords.
“There’s one case today, and I can’t go into details, but it has more twists and turns than a good belly dancer,” said Potter with a laugh. “Now, we’ll have more time to deal with these cases. We don’t have to push them through like a meat grinder.”
Potter said his passion for anti-blight and neglect law was forged by his rural upbringing in Middle Tennessee’s Humphreys County.
His family lived on a farm along the Duck River. They didn’t have much – the farm did not have indoor plumbing or electricity – but they had the river and the farm.
But upstream from the farm a large manufacturer of agricultural chemicals allegedly polluted the river, fouling the properties along its banks. Potter said his grandfather, Thomas Osber Potter, tried to fight the company’s practices but was no match for the firm’s deep pockets and long line of attorneys.
“My grandfather tried desperately to do something about that but he was fighting a losing battle,” said Potter. “He had to sell the farm for next to nothing because of what happened to the river.” “I saw what they did and what happened and the reality is it made an impression my entire life,” he said. “I thought that if I ever got a chance I was going to do something about these issues.”
After graduating from Memphis State University, Potter began serving as a public defender in 1978. He then entered private practice before returning to the public sector in 1981, when he served as a prosecutor before taking a position focused on civil law with the City Attorney’s office in Memphis.
Back then, Potter said, there was no special court set aside for blight or neglect cases, leaving them to get lost amongst more serious criminal cases. The owners of vacant or neglected properties could drag cases out for lengthy periods of time as they passed from one judge to another.
“The system didn’t work, that’s the bottom line,” he said.
But in 1983 the city of Memphis officially created the Shelby County Environmental Court to handle violations of its health, fire, building and zoning codes, centralizing violations before one judge: Potter. In 1991, the state legislature created a new countywide Environmental Court, empowering it to issue injunctive orders and compel property owners to comply with the law. Environmental Court also operates “community courts” in Whitehaven, Hickory Hill, Frayser, Orange Mound and Cordova.
“Memphis is now considered to be a national role model in terms of Environmental Courts,” Potter said. “That’s pretty cool when you get right down to it.”