Head of Shelby Co. Environmental Court retires, shares what he’d like to see for the future

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- The Shelby County Environmental Court that fights against blight and code enforcement violations is about to be in new hands.

Judge Larry Potter created the court in the early nineties, but Tuesday was his last day.

He said he’s retiring for health reasons and to spend more time with his family, especially his grandchildren.

Potter’s not your typical judge, but he’s certainly one who cares.

“I’m preaching right now," he said to a woman in his courtroom last week who was charged with littering. "You’ve got to listen to a sermon, alright? Have you noticed the trash on the side of the streets in this city, have you?”

He’s been the head of Environmental Court for over 30 years -- Holding slumlords, bad neighbors, litterbugs and animal abusers accountable.

After wanting to help people living in poor conditions, Potter started an environmental court docket in the early eighties. It then grew to a full court about a decade later.

“I’ve seen a remarkable improvement from where we started 35 years ago to where we are today," said Judge Potter. "It’s just the difference between night and day.”

He thanks his grandfather for instilling passion in him to help the environment, and his father for the personality he doesn’t hold back.

"My dad taught me to meet people, talk to people, understand what their problems were as they relate to what we could do, and I got to listen to a lot of stories and it made an impact."

Potter has helped transform major projects, like the Chisca Hotel, Madison Hotel, Goodwin Institute and Crosstown Concourse.

“It has an impact on the city that is desperately needed and we need more of that," he said.

Potter said if we take away blight, it leads to less crime.

"Those are things that are critical to a well-being of a city and if you address those issues, which I believe we’re in the process of doing, then the city can only benefit and only grow."

He thinks the city’s working on both but does wish for more change.

“Seeing some of the conditions these people are living in, does it take a toll on you?" WREG's Bridget Chapman asked Potter.

"It does," he answered.

Recently, the city recommended he shut down the Kimball Cabana Apartments due to unlivable conditions, which is a complex with about 40 families.

“First and foremost, I’m not going to put children on the street. I’m not. Nor adults.”

He said this shows a desperate need for emergency housing for tenants who have nowhere else to go. That way terrible complexes could be knocked down and renters could get back on their feet.

Whether it’s the city, county, state or feds, he thinks someone needs to fund it.

Potter also says there should be loans for property owners to get their places fixed up, so the process moves faster.

“We need to streamline some of the things we do, so that some of these cases will not take the time they take.”

He said he wishes the city could have authority to get involved in some cases before they’re too far gone. Many properties cycle through his court, as the people who live at them suffer.

“There are a lot of things that can be done in a creative manner. It’s going to take some time to sit down to look at the laws and make some changes in the laws, and those changes don’t occur overnight.”

Whether it’s going to the legislature or local government for the funds, he said he’s tried it and wants whoever replaces him to keep trying.

Saying it’d make a huge difference for our city and in the court he’s sad to leave.

“It’s been a good ride for me. It really has. I’ve been really blessed. I love what I do and I do what I love and I’m going to miss it.”

Potter recommended Public Works Deputy Director Patrick Dandridge as his replacement.

He said he still plans to be involved in some form and continue his involvement in charities.

"I’ll miss the interaction of the courtroom. I love that. I love to joke with people. I try to make people feel at ease, as much as you can having to go to court."