Collierville could use eminent domain to seize range land: Memphis TN Commercial Appeal, 10/4/07

By Cathryn Stout

The Town of Collierville is poised to flex its power of eminent domain to seize land for a new police firing range.

The department's range on Shelton Road is being squeezed to make way for improvements at the neighboring waste-water treatment plant. Town officials want to move the range 500 feet to the north, which will be further away from two subdivisions. But the proposed 2.6-acre site is under a conservation easement with the Wolf River Conservancy, which opposes the plan.

"When (assistant town administrator Chip Petersen) and I meet with them I'm afraid that the uncooperative faction was very vocal," said Town Atty. Nathan Bicks.

The proposed site lies within 189 acres of protected land. At issue is whether WRC can amend or disregard a strict 12-page legal document that bans most development of the area.

Prohibited by the terms of the deed are:
  • Erection of any building;
  • Subdivision of the property;
  • Use of motorized vehicles, except for emergencies and maintenance purposes;
  • Removal of natural materials.
The plans for Collierville's proposed 20-lane firing range complex call for an education building for onsite classroom instruction, an amenity not present at the current range. There will also be paved parking at the range. The range will include enhancements to buffer the noise and a bullet trap so that the used bullets can be recycled.

The town is having the land appraised, a preliminary step in the "condemnation of the easement" and eminent domain process. Since the lot sits in a floodplain, town officials anticipate the value being low.

WRC board member and attorney Gregg Gumbert said that he can not recall any other requests to lift easements in the recent history of the WRC.

He added that assisting with the firing range would be counterproductive to the WRC's conservation mission and against the spirit of the easement.

"Some easements can be amended under their terms, but this particular one can only be amended if the amendment is for its conservation purposes," said Gumbert.

"Our analysis is that Collierville would need to bring an eminent domain action to take title to the land," he added.

Beside WRC and the Town of Collierville, there is a third party that has an interest in the property - the owner of the land.

Although WRC oversees the development rights on the property, the Chickasaw Basin Authority actually owns the property title.

CBA, a state agency dealing with flood-control and drainage in a three-county area, has agreed to swap out the property with Collierville in exchange for other land.

However, that deal is contingent on Collierville's ability to reach an agreement with the WRC.

CBA executive director Ted Fox said that he hopes that all three stakeholders can meet and work out an agreement that will avoid the eminent domain suit.

But after several one-on-one meetings with the WRC and CBA over the last few months and a facing a goal of having the range complete by spring 2008, town officials are intent on moving ahead.

Whether the WRC would mount a legal challenge against Collierville is undecided, but not likely, said the organization's leaders.

WRC president Hugh Fraser said that Collierville has been "extremely generous" in the past in setting aside land for conservation.

"I think Wolf River Conservancy has worked with all. We have a reputation of working with city, county and state governments in a very cooperative spirit," said Fraser.

"The last thing we want to do is to get at odds with any of those partners."

Memphis TN Commercial Appeal: http://www.commercialappeal.com