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VOL. 9 | NO. 4 | Saturday, January 23, 2016

Memphis Zoo CEO: Mediation, Court Action Can Coexist in Greensward Dispute

By Bill Dries

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The Memphis Zoo’s move to Chancery Court next week in the Overton Park greensward controversy does not damage the mediation process between the zoo and the Overton Park Conservancy.

That’s what zoo president and CEO Chuck Brady said as attorneys on both sides of the controversy prepare to make their cases in court.

That will probably be in a month, given the period for the OPC and city to formally respond in court filings.

“I think they coexist well,” Brady said of court action and mediation. “I don’t think those things preclude one another. I think it’s important that we talk about possible solutions in mediation and see if there’s common ground.”

The Overton Park Greensward is the focus of a Chancery Court lawsuit as well as a mediation process. And the CEO of the Memphis Zoo says the two should coexist to move beyond the controversy.

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

The zoo is seeking a declaratory judgment in Chancery Court for undisputed legal control of the northern section of the greensward.

While the zoo claims it has had control of the area it uses for overflow parking since a mid-1980s master plan, the conservancy contends it has control of all of the greensward through a 2012 agreement with the city.

The zoo cites a New Year’s Eve legal opinion from city council attorney Allan Wade issued at the request of council member Reid Hedgepeth and outgoing Mayor A C Wharton.

“Some people are uneasy about filing for a judgment, but that’s just part of the process of making sure that everybody understands who is the management authority in that area,” Brady said.

The court filing came days after the zoo and OPC agreed to formal mediation of the dispute, at the request of Mayor Jim Strickland.

View/download Memphis Zoo's complaint
(PDF, 284 KB)

Brady says the two work together to put more of a sense of urgency in the mediation process.

“That’s exactly what I think the legal people have said both on our side and neutral,” he said. “Mediation – when there’s a legal background that’s going to happen – makes it work for both sides. Everybody has to look at the situation and say, ‘How can we solve it?’”

City Chief Legal Officer Bruce McMullen said Friday in a written statement the city remains committed to the mediation process.

"We are named in the lawsuit because we own the property, and as with all declaratory judgment actions, all interested parties who may be affected must be named," he said. "The lawsuit is designed to get a court to determine the rights and obligations of all the parties under the agreements. The zoo is not suing us for money."

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

She said in a written statement 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 is referring to a parking and traffic study underway that was agreed to by the conservancy and all of the independent institutions in the park outside the conservancy’s control, including the zoo.

Brady said the study has to be “open to all possibilities as it looks at the number of vehicles that come into the zoo” as well as the Levitt Shell, Brooks Museum of Art, Memphis College of Art and the Overton Park Golf Course.

“We have to understand Overton Park is a community park, and people that come from Frayser or Cordova or wherever – they can’t access a park unless that access is with a vehicle,” Brady added. “We have to have adequate parking, otherwise those people are going to be excluded. …

“We need more parking. … We just haven’t addressed that as a city. We’re now having difficult times over it. … If the parking study does not address the issue realistically, then this is just going to continue.”

The zoo emphasizes that it uses the greensward 65 days out of the year and that the number of days, as well as zoo attendance, have remained consistent.

The year-round attendance of 1.1 million visitors could change somewhat with the opening of the new Zambezi River Hippo Camp exhibit later this year.

But Brady said he looks for the trends and demographics to remain constant.

“I don’t think it’s going to increase dramatically,” he added. “Attendance is going to increase. But that attendance is spread out over all the days. … I would be very surprised if it’s going to be dramatically more. I don’t think that’s the case.”

The more important factor is when the visitors come.

“Our visitors come on these peak days in a very short timeframe. You are talking about 600 cars coming in an hour and a half to two hours. That’s 2,400 people,” Brady said, adding he suspects the Levitt Shell has the same experience. “When you look at alternatives you have to be careful you understand it’s not only the number, it’s how fast they are accessing the zoo.”

Meanwhile, the opening of the new exhibit has been delayed from the tentative March 1 target date.

“It’s going to be probably April before we can open,” Brady said. “We had some not significant issues, but we had some issues that put us a little behind in the finishing up of the construction. Some of it is just some of the equipment is very sophisticated and there’s a long lead time for getting it in.”

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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