Developer Amon Devji wanted to build a convenience store at this site in Prospect Park in 2020, but withdrew the application after community opposition. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50

A 245-day moratorium on the building and opening of new gas stations and used tire shops, approved by the Memphis City Council on Tuesday, will pause such projects while officials study their growth and the effects on communities of color.

The council unanimously approved the resolution from Councilwoman Rhonda Logan, who argued the businesses attract crime, are overrepresented in the city and are disproportionately located near communities of color.

Councilwoman Rhonda Logan

“I don’t have an issue with gas stations but there’s so much activity that’s surrounding the gas stations and we have so many in our communities,” Logan told the council’s Planning and Zoning Committee. “We need to hold up and look at the effect of it and how we’re inundated with them.”

In the last three years, the Memphis and Shelby County Division of Planning and Development has received 19 permit applications from new gas station projects, the resolution says. It includes that Memphis has six gas stations per 10,000 people, which is above the national average of four per 10,000 people. 

Furthermore, 60% of Memphis’ gas stations are already located in predominantly Black neighborhoods while a majority of used tire shops are located in or near communities of color —  and they are proliferating, the resolution says.

“The proximity of gas stations and used tire shops to neighborhoods is diminishing citizens’ enjoyment of their community due to the various activities that may occur on these properties,” the resolution declares.

A 2011 study by the American Journal of Public Health found that living near hazardous sites, including gas stations, can cause cancer and other health problems in residents. The underground gas tanks can corrode, allowing toxins to leak into the soil and groundwater, according to a study by the Sierra Club. And even small spills can present health problems for those who live nearby, according to a 2014 study by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Black and low-income neighborhoods are disproportionately affected by environmental hazards, the Environmental Protection Agency reported in 2018, as the Trump administration was busy dismantling protections.

The resolution also charges DPD with studying the effects of gas stations and used tire shops in the city and asks the department to propose changes to zoning rules to adjust for the findings.

The 245-day window lines the moratorium up with another one pausing new smoke shops in the city, Josh Whitehead, zoning administrator for DPD, told the committee. Both moratoria will be considered again during the 2021 annual amendment of the Memphis and Shelby County Unified Development Code, which sets the rules for building businesses in the city and county, he said.

Projects that have already been specially approved by the council aren’t affected by the moratorium. New projects, however, need council approval to be exempted.

‘Destroying Black communities’

In November, a developer sought the council’s permission to build a gas station in Prospect Park, a Black, residential area of South Memphis. But Aman Devji, the developer, withdrew the request after area residents, including Cassandra Dixon and the community’s councilman, Edmund Ford Sr., rallied against the project, calling it environmental racism.

Dixon said she is ecstatic about the moratorium and that it was long overdue.

“It’ll give the citizens a chance to not always continue to fight the things that are not needed in the community. I believe that Memphis is (overburdened) with the number of gas stations on every corner.

“These builders have come in and just consistently built gas stations that are not edifying to the community, but are destroying these Black communities.”

John Behnke, who represented the former Prospect Park project at the council, said he disagrees with the moratorium and thinks it will unintentionally drive up gas prices in Memphis.

“Just from a business standpoint, I think the council is not balanced in their approach on this,” Behnke said.

Devji is president of Ran Management, which owns and operates several convenience stores around Memphis. He said the decision is good for his business, but sad for consumers who he also predicts will have to pay more for gas.

“Sad, but good at the same time, because people will charge more money on the gasoline side now to the consumer. … And I have stores in Memphis, so I’m lucky my value of my properties will go high. My business price will go high, so I will be benefiting.”

However, Logan told the committee the resolution is not meant to deter business.

“We definitely want business but we have to make certain that it’s responsible business and it’s in the best interest of our city and our communities.”

Attempts to reach Logan and Whitehead on Thursday by email about Behnke’s comments were unsuccessful.

Carrington J. Tatum is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. Email him at carrington.tatum@mlk50.com


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