By Richard Locker, Memphis Commercial Appeal
April 14, 2011

NASHVILLE — Legislation designating 126 acres of Overton Park’s old-growth forest as a state natural area won committee approvals Wednesday in the state House and Senate.

The measure would provide the land with legal protections against development.

It’s a compromise in a legislative effort that began last year with a bill to designate 142 acres out of the park’s total 342 acres. The bill is sponsored by Sen. Beverly Marrero and Rep. Jeanne Richardson, Memphis Democrats, and is being sought by citizens groups.

The compromise removed 16 acres near the Memphis Zoo, plus agreement by the citizens groups to raise private donations to pay costs associated with the designation. That won the backing of zoo officials and Memphis Mayor AC Wharton, who wrote a letter Tuesday in support of the revised bill.

“Thank you for working with me and our city staff over the last year as we have worked through the many issues relative to protecting the Overton Park Forest and the legislation you have submitted … to authorize designation of the Old Forest portion of the park as a state natural area,” the mayor wrote. “I know that we all share a deep commitment to ensuring that this special place is protected for generations to come.”

The bill says the park’s forest is comprised of “upland old growth that has never been cleared or farmed despite its location in the center of a major urban area. The forest contains more than 330 flowering plant species from 85 plant families, including 11 species of oak trees, eight species of grapevines and a wide variety of native wildflowers.”

The natural area is roughly bounded by the zoo’s perimeter and North Parkway on the north, East Parkway on the east, Poplar Avenue on the south and Lick Creek on the west, according to the bill.

It passed the Senate Environment, Conservation & Tourism Committee and the House Conservation & Environment Committee. It faces one more committee hurdle in each chamber before final floor votes.

“I am thrilled with today’s committee votes and look forward to the bill becoming law,” Marrero said.

Marrero credited the work of Naomi Van Tol, Citizens to Preserve Overton Park, Overton Park Old Forest Conservancy, George Cates, Gary Shorb, Charlie Newman, state Sen. Mark Norris, R-Collierville and City Councilman Jim Strickland.

The citizens groups agreed to raise private donations. The city estimated it will cost up to $156,000 in one-time expenditures and up to $250,000 in recurring spending.

The mayor also said city officials will continue working with the Tennessee Land Trust “to explore further conservation protections for all of the park lands at Overton Park.”

 

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