Council attorney's opinion dramatically alters fairgrounds debate

Wednesday, July 31, 2013 at 12:32am

Metro Council attorney Jon Cooper informed Tennessee State Fairgrounds supporters of a victory they didn’t know they’d already won Tuesday night, when he opined that redevelopment of the property could not take place without another amendment to the Metro Charter.

At a council work session called to give members a chance to publicly discuss the Fairgrounds Master Plan, Cooper was asked to give a legal opinion on the results of the 2011 referendum on the fairgrounds — which passed with 71 percent of the vote — and how they affected what steps the council could take now. His answer would seem to dramatically alter the narrative surround the beleaguered property that has been a source of political and community conflict for several years.

“The Charter amendment approved by the voters in August 2011 included two provisions,” Cooper explained in a follow up email to The City Paper. “The first provision requires all of the activities that were taking place at the fairgrounds as of December 2010 (expo center, flea market, racetrack, etc.) to continue on the property in perpetuity. This means that no redevelopment of the fairgrounds that would involve stopping any of the existing activities could take place without approval of the voters through another amendment to the Charter.”

The general understanding — reflected in, and likely perpetuated by, local media coverage of the issue that was incomplete, at least — had seemed to be that 27 votes from the 40-member council would clear the way for redevelopment. But strictly speaking, that would only be enough to demolish any existing facilities.

“The second part of the Charter amendment prohibits demolition of any of the existing facilities without approval of the Council with 27 votes,” Cooper explained. “So, the plain language of the amendment indicates the 27 vote provision is limited to demolition of existing structures. It seems the public perception has been that the Council can redevelop the fairgrounds with 27 votes. But that is not the way the Charter reads.”

Rick Williams, a lobbyist with the group Save Our Fairgrounds, said he and other supporters were “ecstatic.”

“We were never aware that it would take as much as a Charter amendment to change the uses there,” Williams said. “And with his opinion being that strong in favor of keeping everything there, that’s a big victory for Save Our Fairgrounds.”

The Fairgrounds Master Plan was commissioned as part of a compromise passed in 2011 that stopped plans to demolish the Fairgrounds Speedway. It contains various scenarios for preserving and upgrading the existing facilities, as well as plans for private redevelopment of the property — the latter of which would seem to be much less likely in light of the referendum as it is now fully understood.

37 Comments on this post:

By: govskeptic on 7/31/13 at 3:25

The amendment that was approved read in this direction all along. It's not that much
of a surprise that Mr. Cooper just explained it to the Council.

By: Blanketnazi2 on 7/31/13 at 7:04

I agree. I thought that was understood.

By: bfra on 7/31/13 at 7:06

The Council worries too much about following King Karl's orders to bother with whether it is right or not.

By: BigPapa on 7/31/13 at 7:07

The fools that approved this thing really put Nashville in a bind. You don't plan your city through referendum.
This was terribly short sighted and ill conceived.The best thing metro could do would be be to let the FB die on the vine, just stop funding it entirely.

By: Blanketnazi2 on 7/31/13 at 7:09

I agree with you, Papa. You can't plan a city through referendum and this was a stupid move.

By: Kosh III on 7/31/13 at 7:13

Now that Dean's corporate cronies can't get that free land, maybe we can focus on improving the Fairgrounds which has been allowed to rot.

By: Rocket99 on 7/31/13 at 7:17

I'm guessing that the explination wasn't on a low enough grade level and several on the Council still don't understand.

By: bfra on 7/31/13 at 7:24

Rocket99 - That is probably a good guess! However, when the King tells them how to vote, they don't have to understand it.

By: JeffF on 7/31/13 at 7:55

Looks like some politically well connected flippers just got permanently burned. Congratulations.

By: PKVol on 7/31/13 at 8:36

Good to know that, this certainly makes it more difficult to change the fairgrounds plan. Once again, the local media, in its lackluster reporting, caused the confusion.

By: bfra on 7/31/13 at 8:45

PKVol - How did the media cause the confusion?

By: Left-of-Local on 7/31/13 at 9:01

Papa nailed it. This is WHY the Amendment was SO BAD to begin with! In no other case have we allowed a MINORITY OF VOTERS in LOW TURNOUT on an OFF SEASON ELECTION to alter the VERY CHARTER of the city for one special-interest single site.


All that needs to happen is another vote during an election THAT MATTERS, with a Presidential ticket on the ballot, where people actually SHOW UP to vote, and this is TOAST.

The Fairgrounds will be done away with, one way or another, and while it cannot happen fast enough, it is at least only a matter of time.

OH! And a nice point mentioned by the opposing Facebook page:


CONSIDER THIS: The amendment, taken at face value, means that the city is obligated to run the referenced events FOR FREE, and WHETHER THEY ARE SOLVENT OR NOT... which means all you vendors at the flea market might as well never pay your fees. The city is now chartered to provide this event FOR YOU, by law.

By: airvols on 7/31/13 at 9:07

I have the answer make the entire Fairgroung become self funding. No maintence, utilities, road work, safety (police/Fire) protection. Above all no funding of activities State Fair,. When the money stops the out of town leaches will stop caring because they can't make money off the tax payor. Find a different location for the Flee market and it can easily be repealed by a vote of METRO TAX PAYORS!

By: bfra on 7/31/13 at 9:12

First, return all the money that has been taken from the Fairgrounds & put in General Funds. Second, fire Bucky Dozier & cohorts and get some honest trustworthy people to handle the Fairgrounds.

By: bfra on 7/31/13 at 9:14

Wonder how much Bucky gets paid to screw up the Fairgrounds?

By: SouthNashvillian on 7/31/13 at 10:24

OK, so let's just say the Fairgrounds needs to continue existing uses until the end of time. Here's the problem: The property is a pile of crap, and There. Is. No. Money.

Any change in the budget for the amount of subsidy the fairgrounds will need to continue current operations, let alone make any improvements, will be have to put to the voters.

I can't WAIT until the voters find out their taxes will be raised to help subsidize a failing fairgrounds. That referendum will be overturned before you can say "redevelopment."

By: bfra on 7/31/13 at 10:34

SouthNashvillian = Show proof of what your post!

By: bfra on 7/31/13 at 10:36

shb - "you"

By: budlight on 7/31/13 at 11:13

By: bfra on 7/31/13 at 10:14
Wonder how much Bucky gets paid to screw up the Fairgrounds?

I think they said $75,000 annually, but I didn't research it. But I bet regardless of what it is, it is too much.

Now let's get on with letting the businesses at the Fairgrounds have some stability and turn a profit.

By: BigPapa on 7/31/13 at 11:29

As an East nashvillian I would HATE HATE HATE the idea that voters from the West side could dictate what could and couldn't be built over here on the East side. (Granted, I'd like to ship at least ONE of our house projects over there, but still..)

We never would have had the revitalization of the East if we had people voting on what we could do or not do.

The idiot that sponsored this piece of cr#p amendment isnt even on the council any more. He just made a huge mess and bolted.

By: Blanketnazi2 on 7/31/13 at 11:35

Funny that a lot of people who are so adamant about keeping the Fairgrounds don't live in that neighborhood. And that eyesore does hold that area of town back when it comes to improvement.

By: pswindle on 7/31/13 at 11:36

Long live the Fairgrounds!

By: bfra on 7/31/13 at 11:39

Wonder how much Buck Dozier & his brood pay to get in the Fair & other events at the Fairgrounds. For that matter, any on Karl's Fairground board?

By: on 7/31/13 at 12:34

It would be so nice if elected officals paid attention to Davidson County as a whole.
Too many district council members are concerned ONLY with their district, and to hell with the rest of Nashville. That is one of the disadvantages of having such a huge council.

Even worse, other elected officials consider primarily what is good for THEIR own interests or what their contributors, friends, or neighbors think.

This is one county, unified for 50 years in a consolidated government. Can't we keep our eye on the ball (the big picture)? We will either fail together or succeed together, and we have a better chance if we look beyond our own nose.

By: Blanketnazi2 on 7/31/13 at 1:03

Good post, taxpayer.

By: jonw on 7/31/13 at 2:02

Left or everything, one phrase is so asinine that it makes your entire post ridiculous.
You state, "Which means all you vendors at the flea market might as well never pay your fees. The city is now chartered to provide this event FOR YOU, by law."
If you do not pay, you do not get a place to set up shop. It’s that simple Einstein.

By: bfra on 7/31/13 at 2:10

Nothing lestie put in their comment made sense!

By: fair_minded on 7/31/13 at 2:17

Well... this looks like game, set, match for the home team!

This is not new news to our organization-- we have been telling everyone for years that the charter does not allow development of the fairgrounds and it fell on deaf ears. It's good that the metro legal office finally saw the light. It's nice that the new referendum set council voting standards, but the underlying charter still did not allow for Davidson County to divest itself of the fairgrounds.

Both the metro charter and the original referendum passed by Davidson County in 1909 to purchase the property state that it was to be a "permanent" fairgrounds!

Now that it's settled, let's get Metro's hand out of the till, let's get rid of Buck Dozier (paid $123k per year BTW), and let's get to fixing up the fairgrounds as we should have been doing all along.

The fairgrounds can be a jewel of Davidson Country bringing entertainment to all of us-- especially those who can afford or don't like the high dollar entertainment now available in Nashville. It can resume bringing in millions in tax revenue and economic impact to the entire county.

Fairgrounds Heritage Preservation Group

By: bfra on 7/31/13 at 2:22

shb - lefty

By: bfra on 7/31/13 at 2:24

Great comment - fair_minded!

By: nethick on 7/31/13 at 5:52

I hate to break the news to everyone, but a legal opinion is just an opinion. This seems pretty (politically) convenient to me.

Can you imagine how this issue was going to change the next election? Dean's endorsement of the next Mayor would have been a poison pill no candidate could have swallowed. Folks, there are well over 50,000 voters organized to take these anti-fairgrounds mayoral candidates down. There is a reason the Metro Counsel did an abrupt 180 on this issue - voters!

This issue had to be taken off the table. What better way than with a legal "opinion"?

Dean's strategy now is to starve the place of maintenance until it falls apart.

But there is another problem on the horizon for Metro's bulldozer advocates - the state. The state has an interest in the property - to forever have a place for the state fair. Our state could let the fairgrounds keep all of the sales tax revenue (even Metro's share) collected on the property to go toward maintenance and rebuilding projects. They do these deals all the time. They could alter the structure of the Fair Board to allow the Governor to appoint members. Yes they can, and they should. And no, they don't need Metro's permission.

Metro has already demonstrated that it cannot, or will not, run the fairgrounds effectively. Wonder what kind of bond note the sales tax money would float? I bet enough to make the place a palace again!

I have already contacted my state representatives and asked them to investigate this idea. Guess what, they were already looking into it! Contact your state representatives and ask them to fix this mess.

BTW, I went to the last race held there and the place was packed - standing room only! It looked like the crowds back when the NASCAR 420 was held there.

Before Metro screwed that up too..

By: fair_minded on 7/31/13 at 9:08

@nethick -- I think the state would have a difficult time attempting to steal the property from Davidson County-- yes, I did say 'steal.' That property was not paid for by the state, nor is it deeded to the state. You would need to get constitutional scholars to verify this, but as long as Davidson County is a functioning entity, I don't believe that the state could come in and unilaterally usurp the property. And as far as the Fair Board of Commissioners goes, the state cannot appoint members of that board any more than they can appoint members of the Metro Council. The Fair Board of Commissioners is an independent component of the government of Davidson County, and the state has no control over them.

Hopefully the mayor and Metro Council will now realize that they will have to follow the law as it was established years ago. The folks who originally set up the legislation and acquisition of the property were wise enough to know that at some future date, either crooked politicians, or the County itself, looking for a windfall, would threaten the fairgrounds, so they made a bit tough. To get rid of the fairgrounds requires a county referendum just as it required a county referendum to acquire them.

We also hope that this will end the obstructionism of past Metro Councils and Administrations and allow the fairgrounds to return to a functioning entity that it once was.

By: nethick on 7/31/13 at 9:56

I have made no suggestion that the state steal the property. The state has full control of the taxes collected on every piece of property in the state. Look it up. The fact that this property is in Davidson County has no effect on the state's ability to tax, or to not tax, or to defer taxation in lieu of development.

The Metro Council recently voted not to use FEMA money to fix the 2010 flood damage at the fairgrounds. What does that suggest to you? I have alerted the federal government to look into Metro's flood damage estimates to make sure taxpayers are not paying for damage claims on that property being spent elsewhere. I don't think Metro would purposely defraud FEMA, but it never hurts to verify.

I believe that Metro's Charter can be amended by the state. It has been before. I also believe that Metro would embrace "free" tax revenue from the state spent on the fairgrounds. Voting against free money to fix the fairgrounds might be hard to explain at election time.

Finally, you don't really believe the Fair Board has ever been an "independent" component of Metro Nashville government do you? Really? When?

Do you think the fairgrounds has ever been properly managed by the Fair Board? If so, why is the place falling apart?

The only thing the Nashville Fair Board ever really created was Bristol.

By: fair_minded on 7/31/13 at 11:15

@nethick -- that property is not taxed. I have no idea what your talking about the state controlling the taxes on property. You're saying that the state could claim your property tax paid into Davidson County??

Metro council did not vote not to use FEMA money-- that was a management decision. He figured he could get the place closed by now and no sense wasting government money.

I think you better check your facts about the State unilaterally amending the Metro Charter.

As to the Fair Board being an independent component of Metro Government-- go read the Metro Charter-- that's the way it's set up.... the fair board has "complete charge and control of [the] property on behalf of Davidson County".... in fact, by Charter, they are not even supposed to deposit their money with Metro, but with the County Trustee....

And it actually functioned that way for many years... but after a certain finance director served as chairman, he thought he saw a windfall and has been going for it ever since.... that's when Metro made it's big move, charging the fairgrounds for services (even ones it doesn't use) and overcharging them for things they did use ($8500 one year for vehicle maintenance-- they only have two trucks).

So yes, this is a great chance for things to go back the way they are supposed to be now that Metro realizes that the fairgrounds are permanent.

By: bfra on 8/1/13 at 9:18

Best thing the public can do is try to vote all of the CROOKS out of Metro gov. in the next election. Too bad it is so far away!

By: nethick on 8/1/13 at 1:04

Ok. One more stab at this - fair minded. ;)

When a person buys a product at a flea market, fair, or race track, more than the price of the product is collected. I think about 9.50% or so. That is called sales tax. I hope you haven't thought the universe was systematically overcharging you. We all pay that too.

The state gets 7% and the local municipality and county splits the other 2 point whatever. Oddly enough, the state can waive those sales taxes on specific pieces of property for the purpose of infrastructure creation.

The state usually waives taxes for a limited amount of years, 20 or 30 to pay a bond issue. The money borrowed can then be used to build things used on the property.

As for your ignorance on state government authority - Tennessee is a Dillon rule state where no government can create authority not granted by the state. The Metro council might have more members than the State Senate, but trust me, the state has authority to change Metro's charter. They do it all the time.

Cities and counties are creations of the state. Metro Nashville has failed the citizens with their management of the fairgrounds property. Property the state has an interest in.

Why anyone now thinks the Fair Board will improve overnight is beyond reason. But maybe Detroit will heal too.

By: fair_minded on 8/1/13 at 3:05

there's an old saying, "don't wrestle a pig. the pig enjoys it and you both get dirty." so I'm really not going to respond much to your name calling or snarkiness other than to point out that (1) Judge Dillion's rule is often considered to be superseded by home rule, which has been granted to Davidson County by the legislature. (2) It may improve now because Metro was intentionally letting it run down so as to close it. Now that they're "stuck" with it, perhaps they'll do what they should have done in the first place, which is to improve it and maximize it's economic impact.