New Thomas Case Prompts Call for Investigation of OPD Rules 

It's always something, as Rosanne Rosannadana would say. There's a new zoning dustup involving mystery man/developer William Thomas, whose now-notorious zoning proposal to erect a billboard and storage facility in southeast Memphis was the focus of recent criminal complaints implicating two city council members in alleged payoffs from a lobbyist.

The new issue involves a property further north - on Summer Avenue, where Thomas managed to get a parcel owned by himself attached to an existing proposal for six commercial lots by another company, Grace Development, whose principals resisted the add-on but felt pressured to accept it by the city-county Office of Planning and Development.

As one result, council member Carol Chumney, a likely candidate for mayor next year, issued a weekend call for investigation of OPD procedures.

What happened was that when the Grace Development proposal came before the council at its regular meeting last week, council attorney Allen Wade was asked by councilman Myron Lowery to explain an unusual aspect of the proposal. Wade then called members' attention to the inclusion of Thomas' solitary parcel, though it was unreflected in the written application itself.

When Brenda Solomito, who represented Grace Development, then pointed out that her client had reluctantly allowed the add-on at OPD's request, several council members cried foul.

The bottom line: The zoning matter was put off until the council could sort out things at its next regular meeting on December 19th — even though, as Solomito told the council, the delay would be a serious inconvenience to her clients, whose six Summer Avenue lots were part of a larger, sprawling proposal that needed immediate closure.

Deputy OPD administrator Mary Baker tried last week to explain how Thomas' single parcel got attached, unwanted and uninvited, to the Grace application. In a subsequent letter to city CAO Keith McGhee, she went into greater detail.

Citing several provisions of the official regulations governing subdivision development, Baker noted that the lot owned by Thomas was technically too small to qualify for an independent proposal. In cases of that sort, she said, "we notify the owners of these parcels of their status and alert them that they are not eligible for a building permit. If they are adjacent to the subject site under review, we attempt to incorporate them in some way into the application."

The inclusion of Thomas' single lot within the proposal by Grace Development "was our attempt to follow our established office policy," Baker said. Significantly, she added: "It was complicated, however, by the fact that the William H. Thomas parcel was discovered to be entirely covered by a drainage easement which apparently makes the property completely unbuildable. It raised a concern that by incorporating it into the planned development and providing an access drive to it, we were assigning it status as a building lot."

A further complication was the absence of the suddenly controversial Thomas from a December 12th meeting. Said Baker: "Because he was not present he could not be informed of changes which were under consideration by the Council based on concerns that including the parcel in the planned development would create confusion in the future about whether the William H. Thomas parcel would be eligible for a building permit."

All of that further complicated a procedure Wade had already termed "inappropriate" and Chumney had called "highly irregular." Lowery, maintaining that Thomas had no supporters on the council for the inclusion of his property, had moved to exclude Thomas' parcel from the larger application

But council chair TaJuan Stout-Mitchell suggested that the council defer action for two weeks "until the city attorney can look into this matter...because I'm very confused here."

Wade protested lest the council "throw the baby out with the bath water," since the interests of Grace Development, evidently blameless in the matter, might be harmed. And council member Barbara Swearengen Holt expressed a concern that "we may be penalizing a legitimate applicant."

Solomito added that a "$6 million closing" could be endangered by the delay.

But, as member Scott McCormick noted, if the council separated Thomas' parcel from the application without a full legal review, it could find itself liable, and, in the end the council approved Tom Marshall's motion for a two-week delay.

OPD's regulations had "muddied the waters," groused Holt. And it could well be that the agency's rules could experience some house-cleaning, too, in the wake of "Operation Clean Sweep" and "Operation Main Street Sweep," and the resultant criminal complaints against council members Rickey Peete and Edmund Ford, both charged with accepting bribes from lobbyist Joe Cooper on behalf of another Thomas proposal.

--Jackson Baker

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