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Local newspapers usually write an advance story on government meetings so people know whether to attend. Sometimes, though, when you look over a particular agenda there isn’t anything that jumps out as worth writing about. That seemed to be the case with the May 7th council meeting. . You can comment at the bottom of this article.  All comments and my replies also appear on our community forum page at http://wp.me/P5ZA8p-7h  Join the conversation.

There were: easements to be surrendered. … A discussion on which local newspaper deserved a contract for the city’s legal notices. … And there was a proposed revision of the city’s beer ordinance that had all the pop and fizz of a can of ale left open overnight.

Not so fast!

But looks — at least those made at first glance — are often deceiving. Toward the end of the meeting the council members got into a lengthy discussion on alternate financial services. That’s a catch-all name for title loan, cash advance, payday loan and similar businesses that are proliferating in Murfreesboro like the dandelions on my lawn.

In the end, they did nothing. First, because under state law there is little they can do. Second, their personal distaste for these businesses clashes  with their faith that the Free Market knows best.

As councilman Ron Washington said: “If there weren’t a demand for these businesses they couldn’t be here. It is what it is,”

[The view from Tenby Dr.: That argument works equally well for drug dealers.]


Actually, there isn’t much local officials can do

Assistant City Attorney David Ives presented a report on what the city can do about the spread of these businesses, an issue raised earlier by Mayor Shane McFarland and Councilman Eddie Smotherman.

Ives explained there is no way to use zoning to get at businesses that are operating here legally under state law, adding that to the best of his knowledge all of them are. He said the state grandfathers these existing uses, so any zoning law changes would only affect new places trying to open in Murfreesboro.

The assistant city attorney called the council’s attention to what other similar cities in Tennessee have done. Nashville, for example, has zoning restrictions as well as a minimum separation between such businesses and a maximum floor space for each.  Smyrna, likewise, has zoning restrictions as well as a minimum distance between business and minimum separation from residential zones.

Ives suggested that the council might impose a six-month moratorium on permitting new such businesses to open in Murfreesboro until it has decided how to proceed.

Mayor McFarland seems most troubled

“I’m more of a free market … It is a slippery slope when you start going through and saying what businesses you do and don’t like,” McFarland said. “But at the same time when you look at what our neighbors are doing … We are actually creating demand by not going ahead and putting in regulations. People are going to go where it’s easiest.”

He said he doesn’t like to be in a position to have to regulate certain types of industries and businesses. On the other hand, he noted that we have about 41 regular banks in Murfreesboro and 40 alternative financial businesses, a figure that is shockingly high to him for a city this size.

“A Lot of these businesses are going in older strip (shopping) centers,” the mayor added. “For us to promote redevelopment … (in) some of the older areas of town we have to get  handle on what is going in there. Or we’ll never be able to promote economic development or redevelopment in those areas because no person is going to invest in a piece of property when the area next to him is not improving.”

Councilman Smotherman has no doubts

“Shane: You and I brought this on ourselves,” Smotherman remarked. “We both asked for this study. … The problem I’ve got (is that) we’re trying to manipulate the free market. We’re not going to put restrictions and a moratorium on car lots. … We’re not going to put  a moratorium and restriction on liquor stores. … We’re not going to put a moratorium and restrictions on grocery stores. And it does seem like we are targeting one particular business. That I don’t particularly like or care for (these businesses) doesn’t mean I’ve got the right, in my opinion, to control their business.”

He noted at one point he was annoyed by all the people offering to buy gold. The market took care of the problem, he added, by draining the profit from this activity and much of it has disappeared.

“I think this is a condition caused by our economy, and we have a responsibility to create an environment in which our economy and the businesses in our community can thrive,” he said. “I do think the planning commission could look at it, and maybe zoning would be appropriate. But I don’t feel comfortable with us imposing restrictions, even on distance. … I can tell you right now I would be opposed to any resolution or regulation that would prevent the free market from operating.”

[The view from Tenby: He must not have flown coach class in the “Unfriendly Skies” recently.]

Shacklett wants to protect areas ripe for redevelopment

Councilman Bill Shacklett asked if there might be some way the city could restrict the entry of new businesses of this type in a blighted area that it is trying to redevelop.

“There is at least a possibility it can be done,” Ives replied. “Probably when you get into it as a rezoning issue it is grandfathered. But there is at least a possibility of creating a redevelopment district that is not zoning but could have that effect.”

He cited a case in which a billboard company was challenging a curb on its right to expand the number of billboards in a redevelopment district. He said the courts upheld the government’s right to restrict the billboard expansion on the notion that a redevelopment district is not zoning.

McFarland was intrigued by a section in a draft ordinance that Ives wrote for the council to look at. The ordinance states that reports and studies have shown that such financial businesses can have a detrimental effect on local property values and economic redevelopment (and) can contribute to neighborhood blight, especially if open during late night/early morning hours. McFarland said he would like to see copies of these studies.

Meanwhile, everyone applauded Ives’ suggestion that we all lobby our legislators to take action at the state level so municipalities don’t have to. The council members seemed almost relieved to throw the issue back to the planning commissioners for more work at their level.