Fisherville (and Memphis) or, Incorporation’s ironies.

Urban growth in East Shelby County may be jeopardizing the quality of Memphis’ water supply. Despite its flaws, the legislature’s urban growth strategy may be a useful tool in keeping Memphis’ water safe.

The irony of the situation surrounding urban growth in East Shelby County is fairly mind-boggling. The Memphis city government’s decision to unilaterally suspend the city-county sewer agreement and the proposed Grays Creek sewer extension last year was, in retrospect, the right decision justified with the wrong arguments; now that the so-called “incorporation crisis” has passed, the Grays Creek juggernaut is back on track to level another area of Shelby County, despite warnings from the University of Memphis’ Groundwater Institute that growth in East Shelby may be detrimental to the Memphis area’s water supply.

The irony is, of course, that the real threat to Memphis is not coming from the supporters of incorporating the Town of Fisherville (roughly speaking, the area east of Houston Levee Road bounded on the south by Collierville and on the north by Lakeland and Arlington) but from Memphis’ own urban growth strategy, which generally consists of encouraging developers to build as much as possible (by extending sewers miles beyond the current city limits) and then annexing the area years later, after county taxpayers have footed the bill for all of the necessary infrastructure improvements.

While the legislature’s proposal on resolving Tennessee’s annexation policies does have some flaws, the plan’s provisions for designating certain areas of counties as “off-limits” for annexations and incorporations (in what the plan calls rural areas, which would not be zonable for high-density uses and could not receive sewer service) do have some merit. However, these provisions do need to be strengthened so municipalities cannot overrule the county’s designation of particular areas as being “rural”. Changes also need to be made to permit existing schools and other public facilities in non-urban areas to retain their sewer connections (which are usually provided through high-pressure lines, rather than the gravity-feed connections which are used in urban areas).

In addition, the legislature should end the hidden subsidies provided by municipalities to developers operating outside municipal boundaries, including cost share arrangements in which the developer only pays half of the sewer connection cost in exchange for requiring the eventual owners of the property to waive their rights to contest annexations by imposing deed restrictions which are usually not disclosed.

Perhaps the largest irony is that the would-be incorporators of Fisherville would have brought an end to this irresponsible development pattern, and Mayor Herenton would have cut off their water supply for doing it.

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