Metro Council attorney Jon Cooper informed Tennessee State Fairgrounds supporters of a victory they didn’t know they’d already won Tuesday night, when he opined that redevelopment of the property could not take place without another amendment to the Metro Charter.
At a council work session called to give members a chance to publicly discuss the Fairgrounds Master Plan, Cooper was asked to give a legal opinion on the results of the 2011 referendum on the fairgrounds — which passed with 71 percent of the vote — and how they affected what steps the council could take now. His answer would seem to dramatically alter the narrative surround the beleaguered property that has been a source of political and community conflict for several years.
“The Charter amendment approved by the voters in August 2011 included two provisions,” Cooper explained in a follow up email to The City Paper. “The first provision requires all of the activities that were taking place at the fairgrounds as of December 2010 (expo center, flea market, racetrack, etc.) to continue on the property in perpetuity. This means that no redevelopment of the fairgrounds that would involve stopping any of the existing activities could take place without approval of the voters through another amendment to the Charter.”
The general understanding — reflected in, and likely perpetuated by, local media coverage of the issue that was incomplete, at least — had seemed to be that 27 votes from the 40-member council would clear the way for redevelopment. But strictly speaking, that would only be enough to demolish any existing facilities.
“The second part of the Charter amendment prohibits demolition of any of the existing facilities without approval of the Council with 27 votes,” Cooper explained. “So, the plain language of the amendment indicates the 27 vote provision is limited to demolition of existing structures. It seems the public perception has been that the Council can redevelop the fairgrounds with 27 votes. But that is not the way the Charter reads.”
Rick Williams, a lobbyist with the group Save Our Fairgrounds, said he and other supporters were “ecstatic.”
“We were never aware that it would take as much as a Charter amendment to change the uses there,” Williams said. “And with his opinion being that strong in favor of keeping everything there, that’s a big victory for Save Our Fairgrounds.”
The Fairgrounds Master Plan was commissioned as part of a compromise passed in 2011 that stopped plans to demolish the Fairgrounds Speedway. It contains various scenarios for preserving and upgrading the existing facilities, as well as plans for private redevelopment of the property — the latter of which would seem to be much less likely in light of the referendum as it is now fully understood.