Friday, November 19, 2010

Res ipsa loquitur

November 15, 2010

Ms. Cynthia Buchanan
Director of Park Services, City of Memphis
2599 Avery Ave.
Memphis, TN 38112

Dear Director Buchanan:

As you know, CPOP supports the idea of a conservation easement to protect Overton Park from inappropriate uses in the future. We also support a Tennessee State Natural Area designation for the 150-acre Old Forest, because we think it's the simplest, cheapest and most effective method to protect this unique ecosystem.

Over the past two years CPOP has frequently stated that the process of giving legal protection to Overton Park should be conducted openly and allow for public participation. Our board of directors met with you and the City's Chief Administrative Officer, George Little, on February 25, 2010, and were given a verbal promise that this would occur. So far you have shown no openness or willingness to include the public in this process.

In April of 2010, you emailed us a document that you described as the City's draft conservation easement for Overton Park [Download the PDF]) and asked for our comments. You recently told us that this document was written by James Jalenak, a prominent local attorney who is employed by the Memphis Zoo, but this fact was not revealed at the time we received the document.

On April 26, 2010, CPOP submitted detailed comments [Download the PDF] on your draft conservation easement. We also shared your draft and our comments with the public on our website. We heard nothing from you for the next six months.

On October 28, 2010, you emailed us and proposed an immediate meeting to discuss a second draft of the City's proposed conservation easement. You supplied a document that you said was created by the leaders of Park Friends Inc. and the Memphis Zoo [Download the PDF]. You said that a final draft of the conservation easement will be prepared by the Land Trust for Tennessee within a few weeks.

This second document does not reflect any of the changes that our group suggested in April. We did not expect you to agree with all of our suggested changes to the first draft, but it is surprising that you ignored our input so completely.

This document would do nothing to protect the Old Forest from clearcutting or other physical damage. It would do nothing to protect wildlife values. It would give no meaningful protection to any of the natural, scenic, historical and recreational values that make Overton Park so beloved by our community.

This document would:

  • Allow for the general construction of an unquantified number of trails, boardwalks, observation areas, and other unspecified "improvements" at the park. 1(a)

  • Allow undefined and unspecified "enhancement" activities for the forest and wildlife habitat. In the recent past, the City and the Memphis Zoo have destroyed portions of the forest's understory in the name of enhancement. 1(c) and 1(d)

  • Allow use of the park for floodwater detention. 1(j)

  • Allow anything that the Grantee is willing to sign off on. 1(k)

  • Allow the City to relocate any facility within areas A, B, C, or D from one area to another without limitation. As written this could allow, for example, the golf course to be relocated into the Old Forest. 1(l) and 1(m)

  • Allow the Memphis Zoo to build an unquantified number of walkways, camping areas, and other unspecified "facilities" and "improvements" inside the fenced 17 acres of the Old Forest. 1(n)

  • Allow the Memphis Zoo to continue parking on the Greensward indefinitely. 1(o)

  • Allow the option of motorized use on all paved paths in the park. 2(b)

  • Allow the construction of new roads and parking lots as permitted by the Grantee. 2(k)

It is disappointing to wait this long for the second draft of your proposed conservation easement, only to find that it reads more like a private contract between the City and the Memphis Zoo to allow the continued loss and degradation of our public parkland.

Overton Park is a priceless resource for our community. The entire park deserves to be protected by a substantive conservation easement, and the Old Forest deserves to be protected by Tennessee State Natural Area designation. But this process should not occur in a vacuum.

You have insisted on a private and exclusive process to develop a draft conservation easement that does not adequately protect public interests. This is not an appropriate way to decide the future of Overton Park. We ask you to fulfill your earlier promise of transparency and open public participation in this process.

Sincerely yours,

Naomi Van Tol
President, Citizens to Preserve Overton Park
901-278-2396 / /

Mr. George Little, Chief Administrative Officer, City of Memphis
Ms. Martha Kelly, President, Park Friends Inc.
Mr. Jim Jalenak, Chief Administrative Officer, Memphis Zoo
Councilman Jim Strickland
Senator Beverly Marrero
Representative Jeanne Richardson