VOL. 132 | NO. 206 | Tuesday, October 17, 2017
Sewer Cut-Off Aligns With Developing Densely
By Bill Dries
When the city decided in August to end all new connections to the sewer system by developments outside of the Memphis city limits effective immediately, it was about much more than the sewer system.
A state law enacted in 2014 requires written consent or referendum approval by those being annexed by Tennessee cities – a law that has effectively ended annexation for the foreseeable future.
“As a state we are reversing 80 years’ worth of public policy to allow municipalities to grow into unincorporated parts of their county,” said Alan Crone, special adviser to Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland, on the WKNO/Channel 10 program “Behind The Headlines.”
The city is reviewing 74 projects whose developers claim their plans were already in the pipeline with fees paid and permission given when the sewer connection moratorium went into effect.
But Crone said the policy probably isn’t temporary.
“I don’t know that there will be a change to the policy,” he said. “There may be some exceptions to the policy granted either because of legal obligation or just for development obligations. There is some talk about voluntary annexation where the business owners say we’ll be annexed so we can have the sewer extension. The commercial areas are a little bit easier to deal with than the residential ones.”
Shelby County Commission chairwoman Heidi Shafer is involved in talks with the city about projects caught in the middle of the transition and said she understands the city’s position.
“It makes sense to me that for the new sewer to be run outside the city lines that they would say, ‘We are not going to be interested in doing that anymore’ – which means that the county needs to be gearing up to be doing it.”
Shafer says that for the county to provide sewer service to some of the six suburban towns and cities that don’t have that capacity is probably a three- to five-year transition.
But Crone questioned the need for urban-type sewer services, particularly in unincorporated Shelby County, and urged county commissioners to consider that carefully.
“At some point, I would respectfully ask the county commission to really carefully consider whether the county ought to get in the sewer business at all,” Crone said. “All of that development that we’re talking about could be diverted into the other municipalities. Lakeland is talking about doing a big development off exit 20 … It’s not just the city of Memphis looking to densify. It’s other municipalities that may make that choice as well.”
Shafer said the county probably wouldn’t try to match the city’s level of sewer services.
“I don’t anticipate unincorporated Shelby County becoming more municipal,” she said. “But you can’t put in septic systems there without having problems that will bleed over into ground water.”
Shafer knows of several development deals that have “fallen through” since August “because there was no guarantee that the sewers were going to be actually able to be done.”
And she is among commissioners expressing concern about the impact of the city’s decision on acreage in Millington that they see as a potential site for the $5-billion Amazon HQ2 project that cities across the country are competing for.
“I think just the fact that the city and county haven’t come to some good, formalized policies on it where we can be clear is making already some business deals go south at a time when the whole rest of the state is able to take advantage of a burgeoning economy,” she said.
Crone said he knows of no major deals that have fallen through just because of the change in sewer policy by the city.
“If there’s a policy, there’s exceptions that can be generated to the policy. We’re not here to cut off development. We’re here to do smart development,” Crone said. “If Amazon said we want to locate near Millington and Millington couldn’t extend sewers out there, then we would certainly be in that conversation. One of the good things that has come out of this is that conversation.”
Greater Memphis Chamber vice president Kelly Rayne said the chamber’s concern is developers whose projects are “caught in this no man’s land – this limbo period.”
“If there is a project in place that is moving through the pipeline so to speak, we are trying to facilitate a resolution with the administration,” she said.
Crone said the larger trend of moving development within the boundaries of cities to give at least Memphis more density could leave some projects on the outside looking in, or at least changing their plans.
“When you reverse policy like this, it’s like musical chairs,” Crone said. “The music is going to stop and there may be some people who don’t have a seat. But I would encourage those developers to look inside the city limits. There is plenty of land available there. And the resources the city was going to use to extend sewers and provide infrastructure out in unincorporated Shelby County – we’d like to now focus that on undeveloped parts of the city.”
Crone made a distinction between what developers want and what residents of an area might want around them. He also rejected the idea that the sewer moratorium is driving development outside of Shelby County.
“That’s already happening. The more we drive development east, north and south, the more development is going to go out ahead of that,” he said. “I would say most of the people who live in these unincorporated areas don’t want any more density there. We haven’t gotten any calls, as far as I know, from people who live in those areas saying we want more sewer connections. It’s basically just developers who want to build municipal-style developments in unincorporated Shelby County.”