Fairgrounds Case Goes to Chancery Court

“You’re asserting that as a matter of law, this just doesn’t fit?” Chancellor Ellen Lyle asks Metro attorney Lora Fox.

NASHVILLE, TN – Metro is being sued over building a MLS soccer stadium at the Fairgrounds. Chancery Court Judge Ellen Hobbs Lyle queried both sides in the controversial MLS Fairgrounds case Tuesday, October 10.

Lyle asked opposing attorneys how they would describe a number of legal and factual issues entangling the case which she will have to unsnarl if she decides to hear it. Lyle said she would decide whether there will be a trial by Friday, October 26.

Attorney Jim Roberts represents Save Our Fairgrounds and other plaintiffs who say a MLS stadium will hurt their business, choke out Expo events, including the Tennessee State Fair, and force the Fair Board into bankruptcy.

“To conduct the fair, to conduct the flea markets, to conduct the traditional uses there has to be a certain amount of parking,” said Roberts. Metro plans to eliminate 2500 current spaces and share 250 spaces with the Fifty Forward building. Not nearly enough, he says.

“The people amended the charter so that all activities shall continue on the same site. So they are bound by that,” said plaintiff’s Attorney Jim Roberts.

“Metro didn’t come in and say ‘we’re going to take away this parking and build a parking garage’. They’re effectively destroying the Fair Board’s ability to function,” Roberts said.

He claims City Hall wants to destroy the Fairgrounds by undermining the money-making events that sustain it. As an example, Roberts cited getting rid of gun shows at the Fairgrounds two years ago.

Metro attorney Lora Fox argued that the plaintiffs lack legal standing and that any injury they may sustain is speculative. She argued Metro controls what events and uses take place at the Fairgrounds.

Fox said Metro officials have promised adequate parking and the City Council has approved the lease and bonds to build a MLS stadium at the Fairgrounds. She asked the judge to let them get on with it and noted construction is set to begin at the Fairgrounds in November.

“Metro has specifically taken the parcel on the Fairgrounds and has chosen to use a different technique in order to grant the lease in this case. This was not extra land that was looking for a home, necessarily. This was a parcel that the council had determined was appropriate for additional uses,” Fox said.

“This was not extra land that was looking for a home, necessarily. This was a parcel that the council had determined was appropriate for additional uses,” said Metro attorney Lora Fox.

The City Council has passed a number of ordinances regarding the proposed stadium including two leases, ten acres of mixed-use development, and bond measures. Fox said the governing legal principle is that most recently passed ordinances have priority over older ones.

Roberts said Metro officials have gone about the MLS project improperly from the very beginning. He said the City Charter and state law protect the State Fairgrounds and the city can’t build a soccer stadium there without first changing the charter. On September 4, the city council voted down a measure to put a stadium ballot measure on the November ballot. Roberts said citizens or the city council can put a referendum measure on the ballot but that is the only way the city charter can be changed.

“The Metro Council cannot violate state law or the city charter and if it does, citizens can file a lawsuit and hold the government accountable. And that’s why we’re here,” Roberts said.

Voters re-affirmed their support of the 117-acre site in 2011 when they approved a referendum by 71-29 percent to prohibit commercial development at the Fairgrounds. First, Karl Dean, then Megan Barry, and now David Briley is trying to develop the Fairgrounds. Roberts says Metro wants get rid of the Fairgrounds. He says the city is deliberately and illegally killing off the Fairgrounds, piece by piece.

“The loss of parking leads to a lack of attendance; lack of attendance leads to a lack of vendors; lack of vendors leads to bankruptcy. And that’s the goal here,” Roberts said. Fox argued that casting City Hall and the majority of the City Council as villains in a conspiracy is a theory without merit.

“We assume that government officials are going to do their jobs and do what they say they are going to do. That presumption of good faith, if we have no facts otherwise, says ‘yes, the MLS will not disrupt the schedule’,” Fox said.

But Roberts said upcoming events including the biggest flea market of the year, Christmas Village, and a Speedway race will all be hurt if construction begins in just a few weeks.

The Mayor, city council, MLS owner John Ingram, and others are playing a rematch with millions at stake. Metro’s Chief Operating Officer, Rich Riebeling, was Finance Director under former mayor Karl Dean who wanted to develop the Fairgrounds in 2011.

Riebeling was involved in siphoning $7.4 million in federal flood relief money to build the Ascend Amphitheater downtown in 2015. He was the architect of former mayor Megan Barry’s plan to develop Fort Negley in 2017, and Riebeling has been behind the scenes in the most recent attempt to develop the Fairgrounds. His departure from the Briley administration was announced in June but he hasn’t left yet.

Fox argued the city council has the ultimate authority to decide how to use the land at the Fairgrounds and has taken a number of steps to get a MLS stadium built. “And each one of them just as improper as the last,” argues Roberts.

Using terms like writ of mandamus, declaratory judgment, legal standing, surplus, equal dignity doctrine, ministerial duty, injunctive relief, and fair market value, the two opposing attorneys argued back and forth while answering Chancellor Lyle’s questions. Roberts in khaki pants, brown jacket and yellow tie was every bit the impassioned advocate for little people trampled upon by callous bureaucrats.

Fox, in a brown skirt and black jacket with her hair pulled back, was every bit the beleaguered civil servant who answered the chancellor’s questions in a simple and straightforward manner but seemed a bit put out about having to be there in the first place.

If the case goes to trial there will be contentious debate about the land, who controls it, and who sets the schedule of events. The case may settle a number of questions like the proper role of the Fair Board, whether they control parking, and whether they get to keep that revenue. Judge Lyle could even decide Metro needs to build the soccer stadium someplace else.

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