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VOL. 131 | NO. 90 | Thursday, May 5, 2016

Council Members Express Doubts About Solidifying Overton Park Boundaries

By Bill Dries

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Two months after the Memphis City Council approved a resolution giving the Memphis Zoo control of two-thirds of the Overton Park Greensward, the votes are still there to set park boundaries in stone.

A resolution setting boundaries at Overton Park was approved by the city council May 3 on first reading, but it may change before final approval.

(Daily News File/Andrew J. Breig)

But it’s a closer margin than the 11-1 vote in March.

The boundaries ordinance passed on the first of three readings Tuesday, March 3, after a set of votes in committee that defeated an effort to delay first reading by 5-7, and then approved 7-5 adding the item to Tuesday’s agenda.

Council chairman Kemp Conrad, who proposed the ordinance, insisted the action is a follow-through on the resolution that includes a “mete and bounds” survey to specifically set the boundaries.

Conrad also said the ordinance would be amended to incorporate any agreements reached in the mediation between the zoo and the Overton Park Conservancy.

“This doesn’t at all interfere with the mediation,” Conrad said in executive session before the voting meeting. “What this will do is when the mediation hopefully concludes codify what the use will be for Overton Park.

“But if there’s not an outcome, the mayor and the council – the city – will decide ultimately,” he said. “We hope the mediation is successful and this will be amended at that time to reflect what we hope is the outcome of mediation, if not what the city decides is best for Overton Park.”

But there are concerns about whether the movement of the ordinance might have its own influence on the mediation, which is nearing a June 30 deadline for a complete agreement.

“I don’t want to do anything that would give people a reason to step away from mediation and not act in good faith,” said council member Worth Morgan, whose district includes the park.

Morgan said he still believes he made the right decision in voting for the March 1 resolution, which put him near, if not at the center, of the resulting political storm.

“There are a lot of people who are frustrated in this whole process,” he said. “I don’t know who the most frustrated person in the city is. But any list of the top has to include me as well. At times, I swear, I just wish everybody would stop and not do anything whether it be putting gravel down on the greensward, whether it would be vandalism, whether it would be some of the nasty comments on line.”

That storm intensified when the zoo began using nearly all of the greensward for overflow parking instead of the third of the area it had been using before the council resolution.

Since then the zoo has gone back to the original third with a temporary metal barrier separating the cars and the zoo patrons in them from protesters, some of whom were venturing into the parking area to talk those in the cars out of parking there.

“The thing that would negatively affect mediation is people’s reaction to this ordinance, if it’s unjustly used to do a protest that would become uncivil,” Morgan said. “I think there’s a lot of cause and effect to this issue. I hope the reaction to this isn’t over the top and destructive to the process that we are working so hard on now.”

“What do we gain by waiting?” Conrad replied. “If you’re going to try to please the fringe element so they don’t get mad and go do bad things, then this job’s probably not for you.”

Conrad elaborated on using the term “fringe element” to describe some critics of the council’s action: “You should see some of the emails we get,” he told the speakers at the council session. “And it’s unacceptable.”

But he said he appreciated “the positive civic engagement” by others who may also disagree with the council action.

And he said he is optimistic about the mediation process.

“I don’t think there is anybody on this dais that thinks parking on the Greensward is a solution,” he said. “We are putting a legal framework in place to facilitate the decision that comes out of mediation.”

Council attorney Allan Wade, who is involved in the mediation process that includes the city administration and the city council as well as the zoo and the conservancy, said the process has shown “significant progress.”

“I think the iron is hot to try to get something done,” he said.

But he said the scheduled third reading now set for June 7 might not be a good idea since that’s the day the council is scheduled to take final budget and tax rate votes for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

The final budget votes usually make for a long council session even when they are the only major items on the council’s agenda.

If a final vote on the ordinance is delayed to the June 21 session it would be nine days short of the June 30 mediation deadline.

But Conrad said there is nothing to prevent a delay in a final vote to the council’s July 5 meeting.

Conservancy executive director Tina Sullivan watched the debate and later expressed concern about the council action influencing the talks.

“It sets a timeline in motion that is different than the timeline we’ve been working under, which was the mayor’s June 30 deadline,” she said. “It does impact the pace of the discussion which could impact the level of detail that we’re able to get to.”

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

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