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VOL. 131 | NO. 14 | Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Strickland Proposes Mediation in Greensward Controversy

By Bill Dries

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Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland is asking leaders of the Memphis Zoo and the Overton Park Conservancy to enter voluntary mediation over parking in the Overton Park Greensward.

The board of the Memphis Zoo has authorized its attorney to file a lawsuit over the zoo’s use of the greensward for overflow parking. The weekend vote capped a busy weekend in the timeline of the controversy.

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

Strickland made the proposal during a Tuesday, Jan. 19, meeting with Memphis Zoo president and CEO Chuck Brady, Overton Park Conservancy executive director Tina Sullivan, and city COO Doug McGowen.

“I have asked both sides to voluntarily agree to a mediation process that we expect will produce a road map of solutions that will accommodate present and future needs for everyone in the park and the community,” Strickland said in a statement following the meeting. “Both parties agreed to talk to their respective boards about that and respond to me this week.”

In the short term, Strickland said, the greensward would continue to be used as overflow parking for the zoo.

The controversy over who controls the northern end of the greenspace roiled on during the long holiday weekend and carried over into a Memphis City Council committee session Tuesday morning in which council members questioned how much money the city spends on Overton Park and who can plant there.

“If we’re going to let it be the wild, wild west where everybody does anything, we are going to continue to have these issues,” councilman Reid Hedgepeth said toward the end of the committee session, which lasted less than 15 minutes.

The zoo board voted over the weekend to authorize the filing of a Chancery Court lawsuit that would seek a court order to enforce the New Year’s Eve legal opinion that the zoo controls the northern end of the greensward. A lawsuit is one option for the zoo; the board action doesn’t mean a suit will be filed immediately or at all.

Hedgepeth and former Memphis Mayor A C Wharton sought the opinion from city council attorney Allan Wade before Wharton left office Jan. 1.

Wade’s opinion said that although the city’s separate agreements with the zoological society in the 1990s and the conservancy in 2012 are in conflict over who controls the greensward, the city ultimately intended to have the zoo remain in charge of the northern portion of the greensward.

That intention, according to Wade, was spelled out in a 1980s-era master plan that was incorporated into the 1990s agreement for the zoological society to operate and maintain the zoo for the city.

The conservancy disagrees with Wade’s opinion.

But the zoological society cited the legal opinion as its basis for removing 27 trees from the northern border of the greensward a week after the opinion was released. The conservancy had planted the trees in 2012.

The zoo board vote doesn't mean the zoo is filing a lawsuit immediately or that it defnitely will.

But the zoo removed the OPC trees in advance of the March 1 opening of its new Zambezi River Hippo Camp exhibit which is expected to draw large crowds.

Eight of the 13 council members were at the Tuesday committee session. The council hasn’t planned or proposed any action at this point.

“Every number I get is different,” Hedgepeth said of his attempts to determine how the zoo and conservancy are funded by the city.

City chief financial officer Brian Collins didn’t have definitive answers on the funding levels or who had permission to do what.

Meanwhile, the protest group Get Off Our Lawn drew 200 people to the greensward this weekend as it planted three trees in the same area.

The group is not part of the OPC. However, Hedgepeth attributed the protest to the conservancy.

“When we have issues where the OPC goes out and they plant trees as they did this last weekend, who in this city gives them permission to go out to the park and plant these trees?” he asked.

“That’s something that puts all of us in a bad position. … What we approved … it does not let them go do these type of improvements … to the park or to the greensward without city permission,” Hedgepeth added.

Hedgepeth said his comments about seeking permission applied to the zoo as well.

Meanwhile, the conservancy announced Sunday it has hired a trio of firms led by the Looney Ricks Kiss to recommend solutions to the park’s traffic flow and parking problems.

Working with LRK on the study – agreed to by the conservancy and all of the park’s institutions including the Memphis Zoo – are greenway and trail consultants Alta Planning & Design and engineering consultants Kimley-Horn and Associates.

The conservancy, with agreement from all of the other park institutions, put out a request for proposal on the study and recommendations in November.

The steps leading up to those recommendations begin this month with an examination of current conditions and traffic patterns in and around the park.

The firms’ work also will include hearing from the public and interviewing leaders of the Overton Park institutions that operate outside the areas governed by the conservancy.

The first public meetings are tentatively set for February.

Daily News publisher Eric Barnes is on the Overton Park Conservancy board. He did not participate in the reporting or editing of this story.

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