A Shelby County Board of Commissioners committee decided on Wednesday to not make recommendations on two resolutions regarding the Byhalia Connection Pipeline and sent the matters to the full board for consideration on Monday.
Of the four members of the Delinquent Tax Property Committee, only Commissioners Amber Mills and Reginald Milton, the committee chairman, attended the meeting. Commissioners Willie F. Brooks Jr. and Mick Wright were absent. Other commissioners and county officials were present, but only committee members could vote.
The resolutions involve two lots on Weaver Road that are in the 38109 ZIP code and are included in a year-long moratorium on sales of tax-delinquent properties in South Memphis. One resolution, introduced by Commissioners Edmund Ford Jr. and Eddie Jones Jr., amends the moratorium to exclude 38109; the other allows Byhalia Pipeline to purchase the two properties — about 2.35 acres — for about $11,350.
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The measures were originally taken up by the full board in early February, but the board voted to hold them until mid-March and sent them back to the committee.
Esther Sykes-Wood, administrator of the Shelby County Land Bank, asked to withdraw the proposal to sell the land so she could review the sale because of new information. It’s unclear what new information Sykes-Wood was referring to.
“The administration requests that this item be withdrawn, taking into account relevant and recent information,” Sykes-Wood said. “We would like time to review developments and examine the conveyance to ensure it still meets all the T.C.A. (Tennessee Code Annotated) requirements.”
Sykes-Wood deferred comment to Frankie Dakin, a spokesperson for Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris. Dakin did not immediately respond to a phone message requesting more information regarding the land bank’s proposed withdrawal.
‘A gentleman’s agreement’
The intention of the moratorium, according to the resolution, was to give the land bank time to identify which tax-delinquent properties could be sold in bulk for a development that could benefit the area.
Milton voted to accept the withdrawal and Mills voted against it, with the tie vote making the motion fail. Mills argued it would be unfair to Ford, who represents much of the 38109 ZIP code, to not have a say on the sale and the item should be put before the full commission where rules would allow him to weigh in.
“My concern with pulling this is we have not heard one word from the commissioner whose district this is happening in,” Mills said. “Normally, it’s my understanding, we have a gentleman’s agreement, at least among the commissioners, to hear from the commissioner of that district before we make decisions …”
Milton invited Ford Jr. to speak, and he recommended the item go before the full commission because it is too controversial to be a “unilateral” decision by the committee. Ford also took issue with not being consulted more on the sale.
“So you found some information? Well, I think there’s also some questions that commissioners may want to ask from a legal standpoint as well, so that we can protect this body. … I guess it’s the third time around and nobody wants to ask me. … I don’t even want to hear an excuse from the administration.
“All you got to do is just make a phone call. We can have that conversation. We can agree, disagree, you can say on record that you’ve made the time. I don’t even want to hear that nonsense. Some of this stuff is intentional. Y’all know it and I do too … I’ve tried to stay neutral but some people are not neutral on this item.”
The Memphis City Council unanimously passed a resolution and a first reading on an ordinance Tuesday against the pipeline. The proposed ordinance would require any pipeline project to seek the council’s permission before crossing city property including roads. The entire council expressed support for stopping the pipeline with the ordinance but is now bracing for a multi-million dollar fight with the company.
Ford went on to say it was state and federal officials’ responsibility to address the pipeline rather than the county.
“Now people are coming back after the fact to try and get brownie points,” Ford said.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation issued permits to the project, but representatives for both agencies have said their permits specifically address the environmental impact to surface waters and do not exempt the project from local regulation. Mayor Jim Strickland has said the company applied for permits from the city but he has placed them on hold while he reviews the situation.
Byhalia Pipeline — a joint venture of Texas-based Plains All American Pipeline and Valero Energy Corporation — revealed its plans for the Byhalia Connection Pipeline in 2019. The proposal is for a 49-mile route between the Valero Memphis Refinery and a Valero facility in Marshall County, Mississippi. The route runs through several Black Southwest Memphis communities including Westwood, Whitehaven and Boxtown.
Byhalia Pipeline critics including Justin J. Pearson, co-founder of Memphis Community Against the Pipeline, argue the amendment to the moratorium is meant to assist Byhalia Pipeline. At a press conference before the committee meeting, Pearson urged the committee to reject the amendment.
“There are leaders who are pushing to lift the moratorium and the lifting of that moratorium’s main impact would be to allow the selling of our land to Byhalia Pipeline,” Pearson said.
Ford Jr. and Jones have argued the moratorium and the amendment have nothing to do with the pipeline project and that the moratorium should never have included all of the 38109 ZIP code — only a small part that lands inside the boundaries defined by the streets.
Last month, Jeff Cosola, a public affairs advisor for Plains, said the company has started evaluating alternative routes in case commissioners deny their purchase.
“These alternative routes will cross other properties owned by Shelby County residents or businesses,” Cosola said in a statement.
Carrington J. Tatum is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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