Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle ruled against Save Our Fairgrounds last week and green-lighted demolition of old Expo buildings at the Fairgrounds.

By Peter White

NASHVILLE, TN – Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle dealt a blow to Fairgrounds preservationists last week, ruling that Expo buildings can be knocked down to make way for a MLS soccer stadium and a 10-acre private development. 

“It’s a tragedy because it’s unnecessary to destroy perfectly good buildings,” said Save Our Fairgrounds Attorney, Jim Roberts. Under a term agreement, Metro doesn’t have to turn over the property to Nashville SC until December 2020, so Roberts asked Lyle to hold off on a decision to demolish the old Expo buildings until after the 3-4 day trial in May. 

“There’s plenty of time,” said Roberts. Lyle wasn’t persuaded. She said delays would cost taxpayers money. “I have to be very careful about that because we don’t need to incur any more debt or be getting any more costs than necessary,” Lyle said.

Lyle’s logic may prove costly if plaintiffs eventually prevail and those buildings have to be rebuilt. Flea Market vendors and others have complained the new Expo buildings, despite their size, don’t have the floor space and aren’t as good for many of the events that have traditionally been held at the Fairgrounds.

Lyle gave Metro, the defendant in the case, another legal victory last week. Her ruling could make John Ingram much richer and the Fair Board much poorer. She decided the decision to build a MLS stadium does not have to be put to a referendum vote, as preservationists have argued.

“It’s very plain on its face. The word ‘or’ means ‘alternate’ and the voters looked at it in its plain ordinary meaning as ‘or’. It does not mean ”and” and then you have to do both things. This is what the voters saw. This is what they voted on and it’s not right for me to come in and rewrite it, to give it a special meaning,” Lyle said.

This is the passage in the 2011 Amendment Lyle referred to:

Sec. 11.602 (d) says all Fairgrounds activities held on or before December 2010 will continue there. Then it says: “No demolition of the premises shall be allowed to occur without approval by ordinance receiving 27 votes by the Metropolitan Council or amendment to the Metropolitan Charter.”

Lyle is correct: “or” does not mean “and”. But that’s why Metro Council passed, and then Mayor Karl Dean signed, a 2014 ordinance to make sure the Fairgrounds would be protected from development by requiring a referendum. Lyle’s ruling discounted all that. 

Her legalistic interpretation ignores repeated attempts by previous administrations to get rid of the Speedway and develop the property. That is why preservationists mounted the 2011 referendum campaign in the first place.

Lyle’s narrow-minded thinking dismisses the action Metro Council took three years later to protect the Fairgrounds. 

Here is the relevant text from the preamble of Ordinance No. BL2014-667: “Whereas, the August 4, 2011 Charter amendment approved by the voters essentially prohibits the cessation of any of the existing uses at the Tennessee State Fairgrounds or the development of the property without a subsequent amendment to the Metropolitan Charter.”

Lyle said it was improper to change the referendum retroactively by changing the meaning of what voters actually approved in 2011—even if they thought it meant what Metro council subsequently clarified in the 2014 ordinance. “The voters have spoken and that’s what I have to enforce,” she said.

Lyle’s reading is actually doing just the opposite of what voters wanted the 2011 referendum to do: preserve the Fairgrounds from development. Lyle ignored how successive administrations have interpreted the 2011 vote. In her ruling last week, Lyle essentially struck down the 2014 Ordinance.

Lyle’s decision may be legally defensible but does not render justice, plaintiffs say. It opens the way for a “land grab” of public land by MLS team owners, to whom Metro officials are giving a public asset worth millions. In the team’s view, it’s just a very sweet deal. They are not stealing the Fairgrounds because Metro is giving it away.