Opinion » Editorial

Shelby County and Memphis “In the Zone”

OPD director Whitehead discusses the intricacies of planning and zoning regulations.

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In what amounted to a quickie course in "City/County Planning for Dummies," Josh Whitehead, director of the joint Office of Planning and Development (OPD), treated members of the Rotary Club of Memphis to a dissertation on

Tuesday that happened also to contain a few history lessons.

Whitehead sketched the history of planning organizations in Shelby County, from 1921, when, as he put it, we "asked the General Assembly" for permission to establish the first urban zoning body in Tennessee and perhaps anywhere. There were other steps along the way to the full-blown regulatory authorities we possess today in the form of the OPD and the Land Use Control Board, along with such associated bodies as the Landmarks Commission and the Downtown Memphis Commission, the entire network overlaid (at least in theory) by the county's Unified Development Code.

These days, as Whitehead pointed out, the General Assembly has its own paraphernalia of codes, commissions, and regulations related to who can build what and where and when that can happen — all this gauged to the population base of a given area. To some extent this over-arching legal infrastructure is consistent with what prevails in Shelby County and to some extent it isn't. There has been at least one judicial decision holding that private acts, of the sort that created the zoning apparatus of Memphis and Shelby County, outweigh the requirements of public (i.e., statewide) acts on a given zoning matter. The disconjunction, as Whitehead points out, can make for some nice paydays for members of the legal profession.

But that's only half the problem. Even within the writ of local zoning authority there are numerous irregularities — some planned, some given special dispensation by zoning bodies or the courts, some inherited, and some patently illegal. And there is the contemporary phenomenon of "planned developments," whereby proposals are allowed to circumvent zoning rules via the concurrence and consultation of regulatory bodies and local legislative entities.

By and large the whole mish-mash was made to seem like blueprints for the most complicated Rube Goldberg device ever undertaken (especially when Whitehead, in his presentation at Rotary, flashed a slide showing, from overhead, a section of Midtown and the myriad of overlapping, color-coded zoning classifications that governed that relatively limited piece of turf.

For those of us who, for business or pleasure, wander into deliberations of the Memphis City Council or the Shelby County Commission or any of of the several smaller jurisdictions in the county, not to mention those of the zoning bodies mentioned above, Whitehead's lecture was an impressive reminder of just how complicated zoning matters are and how much balancing of established regulations and competing interests is required to make decisions that, on the surface, would seem deceptively simple.

There was a time when it was otherwise — especially in that lengthy pre-World War Two period when Shelby County more or less did what it wanted, for better or for worse, and pioneered, essentially unchecked, in the art of urban planning. That was back in the heyday of "Boss" Crump, who governed Shelby County and also, as Whitehead noted, "ruled the state."

Things are more complicated now but also more flexible. That's the nature of trade-offs.

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