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Rural Rout

The county commission continues its love affair with urban sprawl.



The Shelby County Commission continues to sacrifice rural areas to urban sprawl, in the process destroying natural resources and quality of life and leaving locals to pick up the tab for increased infrastructure costs.

Set among the fields and forests of the Brunswick area, a 16-acre, high- density housing tract, ironically named the Village, was approved by the county commission against the wishes of local residents and the city of Bartlett, the municipality designated to annex the area.

Built on a two-lane country road unserved by public transportation, the development has increased traffic and accidents in the area, caused the depredation of neighboring Oliver Creek, and will force Bartlett to spend more than it planned on school, road, and sewer services, says Rudolph Jones, whose farm borders the Village.

"Bartlett sat down with its residents and the county and laid out a plan for fiscally responsible growth," Jones says. "Then the county commission comes around and stabs us in the back. The development wasn't done to our standards and now we [Bartlett] will have to pay for it out of our own pocket."

The county commission's decision to overrule the plans of municipalities is testimony to the power of developers in county politics. It's a trend that's draining the coffers of the county government. This in the face of recent studies by the Shelby County office of planning and development and the University of Memphis indicating that increased tax revenue brought by development doesn't cover the new schools, roads, and sewers needed to service such developments.

"The study shows residential development in the county costs four times the revenue it brings in. Industrial development breaks even, and commercial development provides a positive revenue stream," says county commissioner Buck Wellford. Wellford is sponsoring a bill to recover some of the county's infrastructure expenditures through development-impact fees.

Wellford doesn't expect development in the county to totally pay for itself, but he wants to make revitalization of the city, where infrastructure already exists, more attractive.

Bartlett already has "smart growth" plans in place, though the city is hindered by a lack of control of its annexation reserve area. Jones blames a group of inner-city commissioners who vote for sprawl/development in exchange for political favors from developers.

"The county will eventually have to raise taxes to pay for the schools and bridges required by development," Jones says. "They don't think it affects them in the city, but every single citizen has to pay for the increase. It doesn't matter if you are black, white, green, or yellow."

County commissioner Tom Moss, who represents Brunswick and several other rural areas of the county, says he has seen many developments in annexation reserve areas passed against the wishes of area residents and local municipalities. Moss says he votes according to the wishes of his constituents but says the rural areas of the county only have three of 13 votes on the commission.

Another high-density development proposed for the Brunswick area was voted down by the commission due to strong opposition from neighbors, but the developer refuses to compromise and continues to fight for the project, Moss says.

There are no simple answers to the development issue, Moss adds. He fears impact fees could chase development out of the county. He says most growth studies don't consider the full impact of new construction.

"In a fiscal impact study comparing taxes to services, growth doesn't pay for itself," Moss adds. "But we have to consider the businesses that follow, like service stations and Walgreen's and the financial impact of that."

Lakeland resident Judy Bennett says she has seen developers almost always get what they want. She's running for a seat as a commissioner and sprawl is a major issue for her -- as it will be for the other candidates, she says.

Residents of Lakeland are tired of losing the forests and open fields that brought them there in the first place, Bennett says. She opposes "cookie-cutter" neighborhoods and alleges that "bad growth" is what is bankrupting the county, and forcing school children to sell candy to pay for school supplies.

"You look in Cordova where they're packed side to side with no sidewalks and no open space," Bennett says. "These neighborhoods are less expensive but the families are paying the price in quality of life. And the county is paying for it too."

While he says it's difficult to find solid numbers on the cost of sprawl, University of Memphis economics professor David Ciscel has published a report on the financial effects of urban sprawl in Memphis and Shelby County. The key financial problem with sprawl, he says, is that the benefits go to the private sector, but the infrastructure costs have to be carried by local governments.

And while governments are trying to build infrastructure in the suburbs, the city's roads and schools continue to need maintenance, Ciscel says.

Ciscel points out that the average income in the city is $25,050, while in the county it's $52,263. The study revealed that Memphis is different from most cities in that higher-income jobs are in the city while the lower-wage service and warehouse jobs are in the suburbs.

"So every day," Ciscel says, "we have a transfer of suburbans to the city and city-dwellers to the suburbs. Without good public transportation, all [that travel] is based on the car, which wastes time in traffic and pollutes the environment."

Ciscel offers no easy answers for curbing county sprawl, but his study suggests it's much cheaper -- for all of us -- to invest in the inner-city infrastructure rather than starting from nothing in the outlying areas.

You can e-mail Andrew Wilkins at

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