Cooper-Young’s Landmarks Status on Hold While City Sorts Out Bylaws

By Patrick Lantrip

Residents hope to establish the more than century-old Cooper-Young neighborhood as an official Memphis Landmarks Commission district.(Daily News/Patrick Lantrip)

Despite rainy conditions, several dozen Cooper-Young residents packed into an upstairs room at First Congregational Church of Memphis Thursday, June 22, for the second public meeting held in the hopes of establishing the more than century-old neighborhood as an official Memphis Landmarks Commission district.

However, that process was temporarily placed on hold while a previously un-codified portion of the application process gets sorted out by city officials.

An item added to the commission’s agenda by Josh Whitehead, planning director for the Memphis and Shelby County Office of Planning and Development, seeks to amend the bylaws of the Landmarks Commission to formalize the application process.

The impetus behind the proposed amendment stems from an excerpt from the Lamplighter, Cooper-Young’s neighborhood newsletter, which outlined a previous attempt by the neighborhood in 2001 to obtain Landmark District status that failed because it did not meet the threshold of approval that was established by the commission at that time.

“Based on the article cited above, I requested a legal opinion from the city attorney’s office to determine whether the Memphis Code of Ordinances, the state enabling legislation or any other statues or regulations contain language to this effect,” a letter from Whitehead said. “There is no fixed requirement by the property owners that would be affected by the creation of a historic overlay district in any of these documents.”

Prior to this amendment, representatives with the Cooper Young Community Association said they were told that to advance their application, the neighborhood must reach a threshold of 82 percent of property owners in favor, with all non-votes counting as a yes.

“If there is any current practice by the city council or Memphis Landmarks Commission to require a percentage of property owner approval for a historic zoning, it is not required by law and may have been applied by desire of the board,” the city attorney’s response to Whitehead read, in part.

If the amendment passes, the association seeking landmarks status would have to obtain a petition with the signatures of at least 25 percent of property owners in the affected area in order to advance the application.

According to the bylaws, the term “property” refers to each separate tax parcel, so a single signature may be counted multiple times if it represents an owner of multiple properties in the area.

Whitehead requested that the commission hold off on approving the new bylaws until its July 27 meeting to give commission members ample time to review the documents. But it places applications by Cooper-Young and fellow Midtown neighborhood Vollintine-Evergreen on hold until the matter is sorted out.

Ronnie Smith, one of the residents working on Cooper-Young’s application, said while it is frustrating to put the process on hold, it’s ultimately better to at least have a definitive process outlined.

“I think it’s much better to have it defined, so that everyone knows what they are dealing with,” Smith said. “We were hoping to actually have it through city council by the end of the summer, but now we’d be lucky to get it through the Landmarks Commission by the end of the summer.”

Smith said they will have to see what the final lettering of the bylaws will be before knowing if it will make their pursuit easier or more difficult to achieve.