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VOL. 131 | NO. 16 | Friday, January 22, 2016

Zoo Goes To Court Over Greensward

By Bill Dries

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The Memphis Zoo has gone to Chancery Court seeking undisputed legal control of the northern section of the Overton Park greensward.

Attorneys for the zoo filed the suit Thursday, Jan. 21, seeking a declaratory judgment in the dispute with the Overton Park Conservancy.

The city of Memphis was informed of the filing Thursday evening.

Earlier this week, the zoo and conservancy agreed to participate in mediation of the dispute as requested by Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland.

The zoo board had also voted earlier to authorize its attorneys to take the action when they felt it was appropriate.

In a Thursday evening email to zoo members, Memphis Zoological Society president and CEO Chuck Brady said the legal action is “to once again reaffirm our right to manage an area of Overton Park that we have used for overflow parking – with permission of the city of Memphis – for more than 20 years.”

Brady cites the coming March 1 opening of the zoo’s new Zambezi River Hippo Camp exhibit which is expected to draw large crowds.

“Our intention has always been to start improvements on the overflow parking area ahead of the opening of our new world-class exhibit,” Brady added.

The zoo removed 27 trees earlier this month on the northern edge of the greensward planted in 2012 by the Overton Park Conservancy.

The zoo acted based on a New Year’s Eve legal opinion from attorney Allan Wade that concluded the zoo controls the use of the northern area under terms of its 1980s master plan and a 1990s contract with the city of Memphis to operate and develop the zoo.

Wade’s legal opinion was requested by Memphis City Council member Reid Hedgepeth and then-mayor A C Wharton.

The conservancy disagrees with the legal opinion. It cites a map in its 2012 agreement with the city to operate and maintain areas of Overton Park outside of the zoo, Levitt Shell, Brooks Museum of Art, Memphis College of Art, a city golf course, a city fire station and a city general services maintenance yard and the state-controlled Old Forest area.

That 2012 agreement includes a map that shows all of the greensward is controlled by the conservancy.

OPC executive director Tina Sullivan called the lawsuit "an extraordinary step."

She said in a written statement late Thursday that the conservancy "will vigorously oppose the suit filed by the zoo and, as we have throughout this process, we will continue to collaborate with the city and other park users in exploring parking solutions -- of which we are confident there are many -- that meet the needs of all park users."

Sullivan also again said Wade's legal opinion was "mistaken, factually and legally" in its conclusion.

Wade, in his legal opinion, acknowledged the later map and the ambiguity. But he argues the city’s intent from the earlier agreements with the zoo should trump the later contract with the conservancy.

In his letter to zoo members, Brady also said the trees removed by the zoo’s horticultural staff were not harmed and “are currently being nurtured elsewhere until the Overton Park Conservancy picks them up and plants them in a more suitable location.”

On the broader controversy over the greensward, Brady wrote, “This issue has been a distraction for too long and we want to remind you of the importance of our use of this space.”

Brady argued the zoo’s use of the greensward limits cutting down more mature trees and paving more park space for parking.

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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