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Our Supreme Problem

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I just can't seem to get the Supremes out of my head these days. "Stop! In the name of love," they sing, "before you break my heart."

But in my version, members of the County Commission are the back-up singers and the audience is composed entirely of developers.

The commission decided last week to extend its residential development moratorium in unincorporated Shelby County for another three months. The original moratorium began six months ago.

"Our goal was not to stop development," said Deidre Malone, the commissioner who proposed the extension to give planners more time to study building fees and the financial impact of individual developments. "The goal was to put a better process in place for us to make more intelligent decisions."

During the commission's land-use and planning committee meeting, Louise Mercuro, deputy director of the Memphis-Shelby County Division of Planning and Development, presented a color-coded map of unincorporated Shelby County. Dark green areas on the map represented places where development is a "go," while red were areas designated by the growth plan as rural.

"Yellow is a caution area," said Mercuro. "It could be urban development, but you have to evaluate it."

The uncertainty rests on the areas' infrastructure: Do they have sewer lines, enough road capacity, and, most germane to the county, do they have enough schools?

The refrain seems simple: School construction drives the county's debt. As new residential developments lure people farther east, more schools must be built. As the city itself creeps eastward through annexation -- and the city schools take over Shelby County Schools facilities -- the county must build more. And remember the funding formula: For every dollar the county allocates to SCS, it must allocate about three times that to the city schools.

But the moratorium extension wasn't without critics. John Willingham called it "a slap in the face of free enterprise." Marilyn Loeffel said that if a "developer wanted to take this map and do the right thing, they could just do that."

What happens if they don't want to do the right thing? Do I hear the words "property taxes"?

"If someone owns land and they want to develop it and they want to pay for schools and sewers, fire services and police, that ought to be within their right," said Commissioner Bruce Thompson. "But when the owner of property causes costs to go up for every citizen in the county, that's where free enterprise and government intersect."

Which is why the county government needs to keep a close watch on creep even after the moratorium ends, no matter whether land is in a red area of the map, a yellow area, or even a green area. Commissioner David Lillard pointed out that the southeast area of Shelby County -- a place that's become almost synonymous with overcrowded schools -- was green on the map, as was a development of 31 single-family homes near Bartlett that the committee discussed.

The developer of that property planned to have nine acres of common space (with four of those a lake) and tie the common areas to the greenbelt systems in Bartlett and Lakeland. Lot sizes would vary between roughly 8,000 square feet and over 31,000 square feet.

But those 31 houses would mean 19 additional students to the Shelby County School system.

"It's a small number of students," said Maura Black Sullivan, coordinator of student information services for SCS. "It's 31 homes. As discussed, just that development, we could assimilate the students into schools."

But the committee was concerned about the cumulative effect of 19 students here, 19 students there.

"We're talking about an area that, based on what's already there and already approved, we do not have enough school capacity," said Thompson. "We've gotten into a situation ... [that when you] add all the projects together that we've approved, it's left us with capital needs."

County government can't stop new residential development forever. Frankly, it shouldn't. But, at the same time, we can't afford to keep building schools, especially since the county's population growth is essentially stagnant.

Maybe the Supremes say it best: "This time before you leave my arms/And rush off to her charms."

Stop! In the name of sprawl/Before you break my bank.

Think it oh-oh-ver.

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