Friday, January 7, 2011

Guest Editoral in the Commercial Appeal

The nonprofit group Park Friends was founded in 1992 to help maintain Overton Park and to oppose plans to pave several of its green spaces for parking. We have been advocates for protection of the park ever since. We have defeated several proposed developments and completed projects that include sprinklers for the formal gardens, signs for the Old Forest trail, ongoing maintenance and clean-ups.

And now Park Friends has a modest proposal for city of Memphis officials: a conservation easement that would cover all the public green spaces of the park. Such a move would not only protect the irreplaceable old-growth forest but also prevent further paving and construction in the remainder of the park.

There has been a lot of ink spilled lately about the merits of proposed legislation that would establish the forest as a state natural area, versus the conservation easement that city officials prefer. But an easement and the natural area legislation could easily co-exist. Several parks across the state, including Shelby Farms, have a state natural area -- where the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation enforces restrictions on development and usage -- paired with an easement that protects the overall park in a way that allows for recreational facilities but prohibits inappropriate development.

An easement can be as loose or as protective as the property owner chooses to make it, but its advantage is that it would be an appropriate vehicle to cover all of Overton Park instead of just the forest. It is time for Memphians to stand up and demand a comprehensive and tightly written easement that would protect the entire park for generations to come.

The nonprofit Land Trust for Tennessee, which holds the easement for Shelby Farms, has been consulted by the city and is currently writing its first draft of an Overton Park easement. The Land Trust would hold the easement and legally enforce, if necessary, all protections written into the final draft. If the full park is covered by the easement, future generations of city officials would not be allowed to sell off or over-build the park.

Unfortunately, however, even with the excellent example of Shelby Farms in front of them, the city's Division of Park Services requested a draft easement that covers only the forest. Not even the Greensward, the large field and gathering place by Rainbow Lake, is covered in this first draft. Park Friends has been urging the city for months to cover the whole park, and it is disappointing that city officials are so far ignoring this opportunity to protect the crown jewel of the Memphis park system.

Expanding protection to all of Overton Park is crucial because the city has had an abysmal track record of defending the park in the past. Do we need a fire station? Let's put it in Overton Park. A maintenance area? Sure, put it in the park. More parking? Let's pave over another field. A senior center? Why not? Cut down some trees. Parts of the forest have been eaten away, but the other areas of the park are regularly threatened as well.

Shelby Farms and the new Shelby Farms Greenline have been prominent in the news lately, and there is a growing consensus that parks and recreational facilities are crucial elements for the city's future. Professionals deciding whether to bring jobs to the city and young creative types who enrich a city immeasurably are all drawn to green spaces and recreational facilities. Shelby Farms has been rightly hailed as a treasure, but the grand, old, urban park of Memphis remains Overton Park. It contains much of our history as a city and is accessible to and integrated with the neighborhoods on all sides. This park deserves comprehensive protection, not just for its forest but also for its remaining open spaces.

The golf course has been continually threatened by city budget cuts. It is important to the life of the park, and Park Friends is fighting to keep it operational; but if we ever do lose it, I worry that a land grab for asphalt parking lots or a sell-off of frontage along Poplar Avenue will follow. There needs to be protection in place to maintain the integrity and beauty of this historic and irreplaceable park.

Mayor A C Wharton has made park issues one of his major platforms. I hope he will step up to the plate and give Memphians an easement that has tight protections for both the forest and the other public spaces in Overton Park. The park deserves it. Memphis deserves it. Our grandchildren deserve it.

Martha Kelly is a Memphis artist and president of Park Friends.