Thursday, November 10, 2005

Much Remains To Be Done On The Recommendations For Shelby Farms Park

It’s now been 10 months since the special Shelby Farms Park Advisory Committee agreed on its recommendations for the 4,500 acres of parkland in the heart of our county, but so far, only one of the recommendations has been acted on.

In the wake of the resolution of the controversial Kirby-Whitten Highway through Shelby Farms Park, it would seem a politically fortuitous time for Shelby County Government to act on the remaining advisory committee recommendations. If it did, for the first time since October, 1975, when the “Basic Report: Shelby Farms Public Use,” more commonly known as the “Eckbo Plan,” was issued, definitive actions would have been taken to ensure the future of the park.

Chaired by Dr. Gene Pearson, University of Memphis’ director of the graduate program in city and regional planning, who led a diverse, divided committee toward consensus, the advisory committee issued key recommendations in January that called for the following:

· Shelby Farms Park should be treated as a single entity. Gone would be dueling entities and conflicting philosophies, such as those that erupt periodically between Agricenter Commission and the Shelby Farms Board. There may be a variety of uses on the 4,500 acres – parks, Agricenter, shooting range, and trails – but it would have a single vision and a single plan for the future.

· The uses of the 4,500 acres should have the least amount of disruption to nature and ecology as possible.

· The future of Shelby Farms Park should be mapped out in a “single master plan” implemented by “a unified organizational structure that achieves a marriage of public and private resources.” County government should look to a public/private, independent partnership that operates the park and attracts private financial support for the implementation of a master plan. (This recommendation for a non-profit organization to manage the park mirrors the one in the much-ballyhooed, $500,000 efficiency study prepared for the Wharton Administration.)

· Any development that is not recommended by the master plan should be banned, and no changes should be made on the 4,500 acres until the master plan is finished.

· The entire park footprint – all 4,500 acres – should be protected by a conservation easement, land trust, or other means. Any part of the park that doesn’t have a realistic use or the financial resources to sustain it should be land banked, because piecemeal development should not be allowed.

· The entire area should have a unified image. Signage, trails, roads and parking areas should be part of “a unified whole that creates and promotes the Shelby Farms ‘brand.’”

· The development of the park should complement and support Wolf River green belt and the CSX “Rails to Trails” corridor.

As it did in the case of the consensus recommendations by the advisory committee studying the alignment and design of the highway within the park, conventional wisdom predicted that the 18-member advisory committee on Shelby Farms Park would never reach agreement. And yet, it did.

So impressive was the accord that the Shelby County Board of Commissioners approved the advisory committee’s recommendations in April, and against all odds, the vote was unanimous. It was hoped at the time that the vote would create the momentum that would lead toward the implementation of all of the committee’s recommendations.

But that has not been the case. A few weeks ago, Mayor Wharton appointed a master planning committee to select the firm that will develop a master plan for the park, and it has held one meeting. The charge to the committee is to hire and direct a nationally known consultant who develops a bold vision and actionable plans for the entire park footprint.

The creation of the master planning committee was a major recommendation of the Pearson Advisory Committee, but the rest of his committee’s report languishes. The beginning of the master planning process is a hopeful sign that there is a new attitude toward the park within county government, but good intentions is not enough to allay the fears of the many people who have seen environmental interests swamped in previous processes by the interests of Agricenter and the development industry.

To send a strong signal that the times have truly changed, Shelby County Government should take action now to enact all of the recommendations of the advisory committee report. Any recommendations that can receive the unanimous backing of the entire board of commissioners are clearly ideas whose time have come. What's missing so far is a political leader who will take the lead to get the recommendations implemented.

For example, as the master planning committee begins its work, without a conservation easement or a land trust in place to protect the entire 4,500 acres, how can members of the committee be confident that the land they are planning for will even be there when their master plan is completed?

And since the master planning committee seems serious about developing a park plan that sets the national standard for major regional parks, it only makes sense that there should also be a moratorium on any plans for the use of the land – especially any proposals to sell the Germantown Road frontage. Whatever happens to the frontage long coveted by developers (and there may even be some arguments that can be made to support its development), it should be a decision made as part of a comprehensive master plan that looks out for the best interests of the entire park’s future.

After 30 years of benign neglect and various schemes to gobble up Shelby Farms Park acreage, park lovers can be forgiven for a lack of optimism despite the perceived progress being made. They’ve seen too many processes, they’ve heard too many promises and they’ve received too many pledges that later evaporate, leaving the park underfunded, underappreciated and undervalued.

The master planning committee has a historic chance to change all this, and as it begins its work in earnest, Shelby County Government needs to support it by adopting and implementing all of the recommendations of the advisory committee from earlier this year.

Like nothing else, that would show all those who are skeptical of county government’s sincerity that it shares their vision of a Shelby Farms Park that is nothing short of the Central Park of the 21st Century.

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