Winter’s last gasp reinforces the joy of springtime in Kentucky

April 15, 2014

Mahan-KeenelandA horse is exercised at Keeneland after Tuesday’s snow. Photo by Mark Mahan. Below, snow melts off a tulip at Mathews Garden at the University of Kentucky. Photo by Pablo Alcala.

 

We should have known this winter would not give up easily. But I just smiled when I woke up Tuesday to that little last gasp of a snow storm.

I smiled because I had already seen, felt and smelled the warm promise of spring. I had a sunburn from the weekend. And I knew that there is no better place to enjoy springtime than in Kentucky.

Two Saturdays ago, I saw the new season arrive on the tiny blooms of Dutchman’s breeches, bloodroot and rare snow trillium. The rugged creeks that feed into the Kentucky River Palisades harbor a unique array of spring wildflowers, both common and endangered.

Wildflower hikes are offered by such places as the Floracliff Nature Sanctuary, the Lower Howard’s Creek Nature and Heritage Preserve and the Salato Wildlife Education Center. But opportunities are limited, and the flowers are fleeting.

More common wildflowers can be enjoyed on lawns whose owners eschew toxic chemicals. My yard is awash in purple violets. The grassy median that divides my street has patches of white spring beauties. The grounds at Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate, have been so covered with spring beauties that it looked as if the snow had arrived there early.

TulipThe lilac bushes beside my front porch have made it a fragrant place to relax on warm evenings and watch my neighbors dust off their bicycles and take a spin.

Last weekend was a perfect opportunity to get reacquainted with some of my cycling friends. Sunshine and perfect temperatures made it feel like late May, although our out-of-shape bodies kept reminding us that it was only early April.

We rode a 35-mile loop Saturday past manicured horse farms in Fayette, Scott and Bourbon counties, then enjoyed a late lunch at Windy Corner Market, where a steady line of customers stretched out the door for hours.

Sunday’s ride was more ambitious: 50-something hilly miles from our Lexington homes to Berea. A few steep climbs and a constant headwind showed who had and who had not kept in shape over the winter. I had not. As we crossed the Kentucky River on the Valley View Ferry, a crew member serenaded us with his guitar. Birds took over the musical duties as we pedaled along Tate’s Creek on the other side, admiring redbud trees in full bloom.

We stopped for lunch at Acres of Land winery, the road up to which required climbing acres of steep asphalt. We needed the rest before continuing on to Boone Tavern for a round of iced tea on the veranda.

Madison County showed a visiting friend from Atlanta a more rugged view of Bluegrass beauty than he had seen the day before. Sadly, though, many back roads were littered with plastic bottles and fast-food cups tossed from passing vehicles. As Forrest Gump would say, “Stupid is as stupid does.”

While we were biking, many others were enjoying one of my favorite spring venues, Keeneland Race Course. Saturday’s weather made it no surprise that nearly 40,000 people attended the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes, the second-largest crowd in history.

I haven’t been to the races yet this season, but I have been to Keeneland. When I can manage to pull myself out of bed an hour before daylight, I like to go out there, walk around the backside and watch exercise riders warm up that day’s competitors on the track. It is one of the best free shows in Lexington.

As the rising sun fully illuminates forsythia and dogwood, and as Keeneland’s equine athletes are being cooled off and groomed, I walk to the Track Kitchen for the sort of delicious breakfast cardiologists disapprove of.

As I finish writing this, the last remnants of the snow have melted off my front yard. The budding leaves on my tulip poplar and the giant sycamore across the street look twice as big as they were yesterday. It will be at least six months before they turn color and fall, big as dinner plates.

So long, winter. Don’t be in any hurry to come back.

 


Warwick nature hike a chance to see rare spring wildflowers

April 9, 2014

If you live in Central Kentucky and like to get out and enjoy its unique natural landscape, you should take at least one early-spring wildflower hike along the Kentucky River Palisades.

I hiked last Saturday morning in the Jessamine Creek gorge with botanist Julian Campbell, an authority on native plants of the Inner Bluegrass and a terrific guide. Among the wildflowers we saw were tiny “Dutchman’s breeches” and a couple of rare snow trillium.

Campbell is leading another hike this Saturday morning, exploring Shantalaya, the nature preserve near the late architectural historian Clay Lancaster’s Warwick estate along the Kentucky River in Mercer County. The event is sponsored by the Warwick Foundation, which now owns and cares for this remarkable Kentucky landmark property.

Below are details of Saturday’s hike (click on the image to enlarge), plus some photos from my hike last Saturday in the Jessamine Creek gorge.

Jennie-Warwick-flyer-3-14-LIINES.jpg

140405JessGorge0008The Jessamine Creek gorge near Wilmore.

140405JessGorge0032Julian Campbell holds a rare snow trillium

140405JessGorge0040A more common trillium

140405JessGorge0133Dutchman’s Breeches


If SOAR wants to get off the ground, it needs diverse leadership

March 25, 2014

When Gov. Steve Beshear and Rep. Hal Rogers launched their Shaping Our Appalachian Region (SOAR) project last year, they promised it would be different.

They said SOAR would succeed in bringing economic vitality and diversity to long-troubled Eastern Kentucky, where so many past efforts have failed, because it would seek new ideas and leadership from a broader representation of the region’s people.

So far, it isn’t looking much different. Beshear and Rogers announced a leadership team Monday to guide the SOAR process. The list raised eyebrows not so much because of who was included as who was excluded, which was pretty much everybody outside Eastern Kentucky’s establishment power structure.

“It was a missed opportunity, for sure,” said Justin Maxson, president of the Berea-based Mountain Association for Community Development, which has been working on innovative economic development strategies in Central Appalachia since 1976.

SOAR_logoMaxson would seem a logical choice for SOAR’s 15-member executive committee or to chair one of its 10 working groups. But the only person with ties to MACED on the SOAR leadership team is Haley McCoy of Jackson Energy, an electric cooperative in Jackson County, who also happens to serve on MACED’s board.

Maxson praised McCoy’s selection, and that of SOAR’s interim executive director, Chuck Fluharty, president of the Rural Policy Research Institute. “He understands that a region needs a diverse set of economic development strategies,” Maxson said of Fluharty. “But it’s unclear what his role will be.”

If Beshear and Rogers really want new ideas, MACED would be a good place to look. “We’re not afraid to say hard things,” Maxson said. “Most of the solutions the region needs are not going to be easy.”

Excluded from SOAR’s leadership is anyone from Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, a citizens group with more than 8,000 members statewide. KFTC has been working effectively in coal-dominated Eastern Kentucky since 1981.

“I’m trying to be nice about this, but everything they do, it seems like it’s the same old, same old bunch,” said Carl Shoupe of Harlan, a KFTC executive committee member. “We’re a little bit too progressive for them, maybe.”

In addition to McCoy, SOAR’s executive committee, co-chaired by Beshear and Rogers, includes coal executive Jim Booth of Inez; Pikeville banker Jean Hale; Rodney Hitch of Winchester, economic development manager for East Kentucky Power; entrepreneur Jim Host of Lexington; Tom Hunter of Washington, D.C., retired executive director of the federal Appalachian Regional Commission; Ashland lawyer Kim McCann; and Bob Mitchell of Corbin, Rogers’ former chief of staff and a board member of the Center for Rural Development that Rogers created in Somerset.

Four elected officials are ex-officio members: House Speaker Greg Stumbo of Floyd County; Senate President Robert Stivers of Clay County; and county judge-executives Albey Brock of Bell County and Doc Hardin of Magoffin County.

Former Gov. Paul Patton, 76, of Pikeville, leads the Futures Forum committee “responsible for framing and advancing the long-term vision of the region.”

Among the 10 people appointed to chair working groups is Phil Osborne, a Lexington public relations executive. He chairs the Tourism, Including Natural Resources, Arts & Heritage group. Osborne is a talented marketing executive, but his appointment to head that group sends a strong message of its own.

Osborne was a key leader in Faces of Coal, the coal industry’s multimillion-dollar propaganda campaign to block federal enforcement of environmental laws related to mining. The “war on coal” divisiveness that campaign fueled in the region is one of many obstacles SOAR must overcome.

In an interview, Shoupe of KFTC read key passages from the report by SOAR’s consultant on takeaways from a public forum Dec. 9 in Pikeville, where more than 1,500 people gathered to launch the initiative:

“People appreciate the governor and congressman, but fear entrenched interests will wait them out. … Folks want the dialogue deepened and broadened. … Next generation leadership is essential. The young men and women of this region must feel a stronger sense of SOAR engagement than is currently evident, moving forward. Specific leadership attention to this dimension of governance and program design and delivery is so critical to SOAR’s mission achievement.”

“And what did they do?” Shoupe said of the leadership appointments. “They did everything backwards.”

Maxson and Shoupe said they have been assured that SOAR working groups will listen to everyone’s ideas and perspectives. That’s not good enough, and Beshear and Rogers should know it.

If they want new ideas and the broad public support and credibility SOAR needs to succeed, they must be willing to give some seats at the decision-making table to people besides Eastern Kentucky’s Old Guard. Otherwise, SOAR won’t be any different than the failed efforts of the past.

 


Voters should push back against pro-pollution politicians

February 17, 2014

Politicians say a lot of dumb things. What’s puzzling, though, is how much we listen to them.

Some of the dumbest things politicians say these days involve criticism of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and other state and federal environmental watchdogs. These politicians are indignant that “regulators” are enforcing the laws they and their predecessors passed to keep air fit to breathe and water safe to drink.

The Democrats and Republicans who passed those environmental laws and created the watchdog agencies during the last half of the 20th century were smart enough to realize that pollution spoils our nation, makes us sick and, in the long run, is bad for business.

So why are many politicians today fighting for more pollution? It’s really very simple: Companies pay them to.

If you look at these politicians’ campaign funds, you will see big contributions from polluters: coal companies, chemical companies, electric utilities and other corporations that make more money when they can push the environmental costs of their businesses off on the public.

The politicians who complain loudest about environmental regulation tend to get the most money from polluters. Funny how it works that way.

When these politicians can’t repeal or ignore environmental laws and regulations, they argue that they should be enforced by state rather than federal agencies. That’s easy to understand, too: the smaller the watchdog, the easier it is to muzzle.

Federal prosecutors last week launched a criminal investigation into the relationship between North Carolina regulators and Duke Energy after 82,000 tons of coal ash and 27 million gallons of contaminated water spilled into the Dan River on Feb. 2. It was the third-largest coal ash spill in U.S. history.

The Associated Press reported last week that North Carolina regulators repeatedly thwarted attempts by environmental groups to use the federal Clean Water Act to force Duke to clean up leaky coal ash dumps near its power plants.

Two recent incidents in West Virginia, another state where politicians are frequently hostile to environmental regulation, also has raised questions about cozy political relationships with polluters.

The water supply for more than 300,000 people in nine counties around Charleston hasn’t been right since Jan. 9. That’s when storage tanks owned by Freedom Industries leaked as much as 7,500 gallons of coal-processing chemicals into the Elk River.

Freedom Industries has filed for bankruptcy protection to avoid lawsuits. The spill will cost taxpayers millions of dollars.

Then, last Tuesday, a pipe ruptured at a Patriot Coal processing plant about 18 miles from where the chemical spill occurred. It sent more than 100,000 gallons of coal and chemical slurry into Fields Creek, a Kanawha River tributary. State officials said the spill “wiped out” six miles of stream, causing “severe, adverse environmental impact.”

We’ve heard these stories many times before. Remember the 2008 coal ash pond collapse in East Tennessee that released 5 million cubic yards of ash and cost $1.2 billion to clean up? Or the spill in Martin County, Ky., in 2000 that sent 306,000 gallons of coal sludge into two tributaries of the Tug Fork River? And there are many more smaller incidents that never make headlines.

Does this sound like environmental regulation that is too strict, or too lax?

Many Kentucky politicians like to complain about the “war on coal” — a phrase coined for a well-financed industry propaganda campaign. But the real war is being waged against Kentucky’s land, water, air and public health by companies that want more freedom to blast mountains, bury streams and release toxins into the environment.

Many people support polluters because they buy into the argument that you can’t have both a strong economy and a clean environment.

Sure, sometimes environmental regulation does cost jobs and raise costs in the short run. But history has shown that it has always been good for the economy in the long run because it creates a healthier environment and sparks job-creating innovation. Perhaps the best example is government fuel-efficiency standards for automobiles, which over several decades have given us better cars and cleaner air.

How long will some politicians keep fighting for more pollution? As long as polluters keep paying them to. And as long as we keep listening to and re-electing them.


UK shouldn’t destroy unique teaching garden with 350 species

February 11, 2014

140210MathewsGarden0009AJames Krupa, a UK biology professor, stands in the dormant, snow-covered Mathews Garden beside the now-vacant Mathews house. The garden contains about 350 species of native plants, including many rare ones. Below, a rare American elm tree stands in the garden near the College of Law building. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

Mathews Garden at the University of Kentucky doesn’t look like much in its winter dormancy, covered with snow.

Dr. James Krupa, a biology professor, says UK administrators have long complained that the garden doesn’t look like much any time of the year. But that’s not the point.

The century-old garden may be the most biologically diverse half-acre in Kentucky, Krupa said, with about 350 species of mostly native plants and trees. The garden provides a unique teaching facility, allowing students to see and compare many unusual plants that rarely grow together.

But like some of its plant species, Mathews Garden is endangered. A proposed renovation of UK’s College of Law building would destroy this unique garden, as well as two adjacent houses, built in 1900 and 1920.

When the $65 million law school renovation was announced in 2012, administrators said the project would claim both houses and the garden. Krupa said he was told recently that the garden is doomed.

But UK spokesman Jay Blanton said no decision about the fate of the garden or houses has been made and won’t be made until after state and private funding are secured for the much-needed renovation. “Those decisions would be part of the design process,” he said.

140210MathewsGarden0004AWhen the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation last month released its annual list of Central Kentucky’s most-endangered historic places, every one was owned by UK. Mathews Garden and the two adjacent houses were on the list for the second straight year. The group also complained that UK had demolished a circa 1800 house at Spindletop Farm without notice or warning.

UK trustees have approved plans to demolish several buildings designed between the 1940s and 1960s by noted architect Ernst Johnson, as well as a circa 1880 Italianate mansion, to make way for new dormitories that will be built and leased by a private contractor.

Architects have complained about the loss of the “architecturally significant” buildings, as well as poor design and construction quality of the new dormitories.

Clarence Mathews, a UK professor of botany and horticulture, created the garden in his back yard after he built a frame house at the edge of campus in 1900. Mathews’ daughter, Ruth, transferred the property to UK in 1968, but continued to live there. She died in 1986.

The Mathews house and the Ligon house next door have been used for UK offices. But the Mathews house is now vacant and showing signs of exterior decay from lack of maintenance.

Krupa said he volunteered to restore the garden in 2000. He said he began by removing 20 truckloads of honeysuckle and other invasive species.

Over the years, Krupa said he has spent countless hours and more than $41,000 in UK funds and his own money improving and maintaining the garden, which he said is used by classes with 1,500 students each year. He has added plants, trails, benches and plant identification markers.

Krupa said the garden is a living botany textbook, with every Kentucky variety of dogwood, azalea, hydrangea and viburnum and other plants. It has dozens of native wildflowers and several rare trees, including roundleaf birch, Georgia oak and striped maple.

The garden has a rare reproducing American elm tree. More than 75 percent of the once-ubiquitous American elms were lost to Dutch elm disease in the mid-20th century. Krupa thinks this may be the last one on campus.

“It’s really amazing that so many species are here in this one place,” Krupa said.

But Blanton said: “The question now is should a facility of dense undergrowth be in the center of campus or more appropriately relocated to a research tract on farms owned by the university?”

Krupa said the garden could not be relocated successfully. “Half of the biological diversity is in the soil,” he said.

Rather than expand sideways and take the garden and old houses, Krupa suggests that the law school expand back, which would displace a parking lot and a small, non-descript 1950s building.

“Administrators have always called this a weed patch,” Krupa said of Mathews Garden. “But it’s only a weed patch if you’re ignorant. I’m up against ignorance, arrogance and a lot of faculty that are afraid to take on the administration.”

For an institution of higher learning that trains many of Kentucky’s architects and historic preservation specialists, UK administrators are showing little regard for either discipline. Let’s hope they don’t flunk botany, too.

 

140210MathewsGarden0026A

The entrance to Mathews Garden. The century-old home and garden were built by Clarence Mathews, a UK botany and horticulture professor.

 


Could Eastern Kentucky’s coalfields learn from Eastern Germany?

January 25, 2014

140123Doering12

An old mine in eastern Germany is used for a film screening.  The metal construction is the retooled front end of an overburden spreader that will function as a pier once the lake in the former mining pit has filled.  Photo by Frank Doering

 

Coal is still mined in this region, but the industry employs only a fraction of the people it did for more than a century. Huge tracts of damaged land must be reclaimed. Leaders struggle to build a new economy, create jobs and keep young people from leaving.

Eastern Kentucky? No, eastern Germany.

Frank Doering, a German-born freelance photographer who has lived in Lexington for nearly two decades, spent three years documenting the land and people of eastern Germany’s Lausitz region.

Except for the flat topography, this area the size of Rhode Island has much in common with the coal-rich mountains of Central Appalachia. And it could offer a few ideas for Kentucky leaders grappling with the same issues, Doering said.

Coalscapes, an exhibit of Doering’s compelling photographs, opened last Thursday at Institute 193, the small, nonprofit gallery at 193 N. Limestone. The free show continues through Feb. 26.

140123FrankDoering0006Doering, 55, grew up in western Germany and earned degrees in German literature, history and philosophy. He came to this country to earn a Ph.D. at Princeton University, where he met his wife, Wallis Miller, an architectural historian.

They lived for several years in Europe, where Doering worked as a cognitive science researcher at the École Polytechnique in Paris. Miller was hired in 1994 by the University of Kentucky, where she is an associate professor of architecture.

Doering taught philosophy at Johns Hopkins University and the University of Cincinnati before quitting in 2000 to pursue photography, a hobby since his youth. He now works on personal projects between commercial commissions.

The Coalscapes project grew out of a 2004 trip to Canada, where the couple visited a huge, open-pit asbestos mine.

“It was visually overwhelming,” Doering said. “I’ve always been interested in the industrial underpinnings of society and the scale on which it happens. This was a chilling landscape because it was all manmade.”

The experience made Doering want to photograph large surface mines in Eastern Kentucky, but the mountain topography and lack of access made that difficult.

When Miller made a research trip to Berlin, Doering discovered the Lausitz region, less than two hours away. It had been an industrial powerhouse of the former East Germany, but state-owned industries there all but collapsed after German reunification in 1990.

Only three of 17 former mines still operate there, he said, but they are vast. More than 136 villages have been obliterated by mining, and more are targeted by Germany’s decades-long mine-planning process.

The region has some of the world’s richest deposits of lignite coal, used primarily to fuel nearby electric power plants. Despite Germany’s ambitious commitments to solar and wind energy, it uses a lot of coal and will for decades.

Still, Lausitz is economically depressed. Since the Berlin Wall fell, many former miners have been employed by the government, which has spent billions to dismantle old industrial plants and reclaim former surface mines.

“Many people there feel they have gotten the short end of the stick since reunification,” Doering said, adding that the region has a stigma within Germany similar to what Appalachia has in this country. “There is a distrust of outsiders.”

But the more trips Doering made to Lausitz, where he rented an apartment, the more locals opened up to him and the better his pictures got. The project was supported by a grant from the Graham Foundation in Chicago.

Although initially attracted by the raw landscape, he said, “The project took on much more of a human side. The industrial history and the people’s life stories are unbelievably interesting.”

Doering’s photographs document efforts to restore old mine pits as lakes that will attract tourists. Former mines have even been used for concerts and film screenings, and even public art installations.

There is also a push for “industrial” tourism — with mining companies building observation platforms so visitors can watch the mining process, which Doering said is fascinating because it is done on such a super-human scale. For example, the conveyor assemblies that remove soil above the coal seams are twice as long as the Eiffel Tower is tall.

“People from different backgrounds come and look at stuff they wouldn’t normally look at,” he said. “It starts some unexpected conversations” about balancing energy needs and the environment — conversations that rarely happen in an Appalachia polarized by “war on coal” rhetoric.

One metal fabricating company, which used to make industrial buildings, now makes innovative housing for locals and vacation rentals. It reminds Doering of the UK College of Design’s efforts to retool idled houseboat factories near Somerset to make energy-efficient modular housing.

Doering said his photos have been used in Germany to both document and promote the sparsely populated region, where leaders realize they must rebuild to high standards. “It had better be cutting-edge stuff, because that’s the only way to attract outsiders who might pour some money into the area,” he said.

Doering said he doesn’t know enough about Eastern Kentucky to say what lessons its leaders might learn from Germany. But he said the keys to progress there have been locals and outsiders overcoming traditional fault lines to find creative solutions.

“They have forged some odd alliances,” he said. “They have found a way to work together and get stuff done.”

 

If you go

  • What: Coalscapes, a photography exhibit
  • Where: Institute 193, 193 N. Limestone.
  • When: Now until Feb. 26. The gallery is open 11 a.m.-6 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday, and by appointment. Admission is free.
  • More information: Institute193.org, Coalscapes.com, Doeringphoto.com
Read more here: http://www.kentucky.com/2014/01/25/3052745/tom-eblen-eastern-germany-eastern.html#storylink=cpy

 

Click on each photo to see larger image and read caption:


Author’s talks will focus on making cities more walkable

January 13, 2014

Urban planners, who in the decades after World War II helped redesign America’s cities and towns around the automobile, have been trying to warn people ever since then that they really screwed up.

Finally, most people are beginning to agree, says Jeff Speck, a veteran city planner and author of the 2012 book Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America One Step at a Time.

Health professionals cite car culture as a big reason an epidemic in obesity and related physical problems. Economists note that suburban sprawl has become costly to taxpayers because all of the new infrastructure rarely pays for itself. Plus, a lack of public transportation in many areas has put costly burdens of car ownership and maintenance on the working poor.

bookcoverThe environmental movement has had an anti-urban bent since the days of Thomas Jefferson and Henry David Thoreau. But that has changed dramatically.

“And all of a sudden environmentalists discovered that if you live in a city your footprint is much lighter than if you live in sprawl,” Speck said. “In fact, cities are a solution to our environmental crises, both locally and globally.”

Most of all, Speck says, average citizens, from young adults to their empty-nester parents, have embraced cities again. Across the country, home values in walkable, urban neighborhoods are rising much faster than those in the kinds of car-dependent suburbs that have dominated American development since the 1950s.

“Walkable cities actually save us money, make us money and are poised to thrive in the next couple of decades while unwalkable places aren’t,” Speck said in a telephone interview last week from his home in Washington, D.C.

Speck will be talking about these trends — and giving advice to community leaders about how to make their towns more walkable — at a lecture and workshop this week in Frankfort.

Speck will give a lecture at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Grand Theatre on St. Clair Mall, with a book signing to follow. Tickets are $10. On Friday, he will lead a two-hour workshop, beginning at 9 a.m., at the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet Auditorium, 200 Mero St. Admission is $25.

His visit is part of a conference sponsored by the Kentucky Heritage Council in conjunction with the annual winter meeting of the Kentucky Main Street Program, which works to improve life in the historic centers of the state’s towns and cities. Conference registration, including both of Speck’s sessions, is $100. More information: Heritage.ky.gov.

Most people don’t need convincing about the importance of walkability, he said, but they do need help with strategies for making it happen.

speckSpeck’s book notes that many communities made walking more difficult because they were being designed for other considerations. For example, many streets and intersections are oversized to accommodate the largest-possible emergency vehicles. Fewer but bigger schools and parks have been built because they are easier for officials to maintain and show off than the alternative, which often would be easier for citizens to get to and use.

“The twin gods of smooth traffic and ample parking” took the life out of many once-thriving downtowns, Speck writes, turning them into places that are “easy to get to but not worth arriving at.”

Speck writes that there are four criteria for successful pedestrian areas: walking must be safe, comfortable, interesting and useful. By useful, he means that necessities of daily life — shopping, restaurants and workplaces — must be close and arranged so they can be easily accessed by walking.

Speck’s book outlines 10 steps for city walkability. Those include mixed-use neighborhoods, good mass transit, well-designed and affordable parking facilities, ample trees and bicycle-friendly streets.

The biggest challenge many American cities and towns will face in coming years will be retrofitting mid- and late-20th century suburbs to make them more accessible for aging Baby Boomers and the working poor.

“We’ve laid the groundwork for a major social crisis,” he said.

The best hope is often restoring traditional downtowns and making new developments better for walking, biking and mass transit. That will require changing many ingrained rules and attitudes about traffic and street design.

“Most traffic engineers are really nice people,” Speck said. “But they will wreck your city.”  

Watch Jeff Speck’s TED Talk on walkable cities:


Will SOAR be a new beginning, or just more talk about Appalachia?

December 8, 2013

You have to wonder: Will the Shaping Our Appalachian Region summit Monday in Pikeville be the start of something big, or just another feel-good effort that doesn’t amount to much?

More than 1,500 people have registered to attend the conference called by Gov. Steve Beshear and U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, who said they wanted ideas from throughout Eastern Kentucky for strategies to diversify the region’s economy.

There have been dozens of conferences on this topic over the years, but this one offers some hopeful signs. For one thing, it is the first high-level, bipartisan effort. Politicians who usually dance to the tune of the all-powerful coal industry are actually asking other people what they think.

But once the talking is over and the reports are written, will leadership, public investment and private capital get behind the good ideas? Will anything really change?

soarlogoCreating a sustainable, broadly prosperous economy in a region that has never really had one will be a monumental challenge.

Eastern Kentucky has never lacked for intelligent, hard-working people. But it has been handicapped by isolation, lack of education and opportunity, corrupt politics and powerful economic forces beyond its borders and control.

Since the late 1800s, the region has gone from subsistence farming to large-scale timber extraction to increasingly destructive methods of coal mining. The result has been a classic colonial economy, where most of the wealth flowed out of the region, or to a small local elite, while a large underclass survived on welfare and charity.

This cycle of poverty and dependence has led to hopelessness, drug abuse and other social problems, as was outlined in the most recent chapters of the excellent series Fifty Years of Night, by Herald-Leader reporters John Cheves and Bill Estep.

Can a new and different chapter be written for Eastern Kentucky?

In calling this summit, Beshear and Rogers cited the loss of more than 6,000 coal jobs over the past two years. But they wisely avoided their usual “war on coal” rhetoric, which blames the industry’s problems on long-overdue environmental regulation and enforcement.

The main reasons for declining coal production are cheaper Western coal and even cheaper natural gas. Besides, coal employment in Eastern Kentucky has been falling for three decades, from a high of 37,505 in 1981, primarily because of industry mechanization and a shift from deep to surface mining.

Eastern Kentucky’s current coal employment is 7,951, the lowest in generations, and that is unlikely to improve much. Coal will continue to be a presence. But because the large, easy-to-mine reserves are gone, most of the coal jobs will never return.

There are no “magic bullet” solutions to replacing Eastern Kentucky’s coal-based economy. (Not that coal itself was ever a magic bullet. Even when coal employment and production were at their peaks, the coal counties were still among the nation’s poorest.)

The citizens group Kentuckians for the Commonwealth has some good ideas about what a new Eastern Kentucky economy should aspire to. Those principles would be a good starting point for Monday’s conversations.

KFTC’s vision calls for a “just” transition that promotes “innovation, self-reliance and broadly held local wealth.” It urges more citizen participation in decision-making, and calls for restoration and protection of the environment and public health. It also urges leaders to “consider the effects of decisions on future generations.”

Tourism and outdoor recreation are often mentioned as potential economic opportunities, but that will require cleaning up some of strip mining’s environmental damage. Kentucky should lobby for money to do that work from the federal Abandoned Mine Lands fund, which could keep thousands of former coal miners employed for years.

Home-grown entrepreneurship and technology jobs are other often-mentioned possibilities to building Eastern Kentucky’s middle class, but they will require serious state investments in education and infrastructure to attract private capital. Kentucky’s tax-phobic politicians and the citizens who elect them have never been willing to make such serious investment, and that must change if anything else is to.

Shaping a new Eastern Kentucky economy will require a lot of creativity, commitment and hard work, not to mention leadership, inclusion and accountability.

There will be many obstacles to overcome, not the least of which is cynicism. It will be a long process. But Monday in Pikeville is as good a time and place to start as any.


UK historian Ron Eller leaves big shoes to fill; who will?

November 13, 2013

Ronald Eller, a University of Kentucky history professor and outstanding writer who has focused on Appalachia, was honored last Friday as he donated his papers to UK Special Collections in preparation for his retirement at the end of the year.

ellerEller came to UK in 1985, succeeding Harry Caudill, the Eastern Kentucky lawyer whose 1962 book, Night Comes to the Cumberlands, focused national attention on the exploitation of Appalachia. Eller picked up where Caudill left off, analyzing the forces that have shaped Appalachia’s evolution.

Eller’s 1982 book, Miners, Mill hands and Mountaineers: The Industrialization of the Appalachian South, 1880-1930, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. A 2008 book, Uneven Ground: Appalachia Since 1945, is the best book I know of about the region’s modern history.

No word yet on the Appalachian scholar UK will hire to succeed Eller in the history department, but he or she had better be good. We cannot really understand modern Kentucky without understanding Appalachian history.


Improving Lexington water quality messy, expensive and worth it.

November 4, 2013
SewerWork

Rob Walker installed a pipe as Tommy Davis ran a track hoe at a pump station under construction on Winchester Road near Hume Drive. Photo by Pablo Alcala

 

I often say that if our state and federal governments worked as well as Lexington’s government does, America would be a lot better off.

Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government is hardly perfect. (Trick-or-treat when?) But the city delivers services efficiently, and our nonpartisan mayor and council members usually seem to care more about the public interest than special interests. Unlike Congress, they’re a pretty responsible bunch.

A good example is the consent decree negotiated in 2008 between the city and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the effects of which will soon be hard to miss.

Construction crews will begin this month digging up streets for the first three of more than 80 sewer-improvement projects. The most noticeable early one will be just south of St. Joseph Hospital on Harrodsburg Road, where underground sewer pipes are being replaced with bigger ones.

The work will take at least 10 years. Citizens may get more information at Lexingtonky.gov about specific projects and disruptions they will cause.

The total cost of this work could be a half-billion dollars or more, which means sewer fees are sure to rise eventually. Lexington has a lot of catching up to do.

“There’s no shortage of stuff to fix out there,” said Charles Martin, who as director of the city’s Division of Water Quality is overseeing what he says is the biggest capital construction project in Lexington history. “It’s a marathon, not a sprint.”

Many politicians like to beat up on the EPA, especially because it won’t allow coal companies to destroy what is left of Eastern Kentucky’s natural landscape for the sake of higher profits and a few short-term jobs.

But when the EPA sued Lexington in 2006, citing decades of chronic water pollution, city officials acted responsibly. Rather than posture and scapegoat, they began working with the EPA to figure out how to fix the problems. They knew that a clean environment was in Lexington’s best long-term interest.

Lexington’s problem is basically that infrastructure hasn’t kept up with growth and development. A lot of rainwater that should have been going into storm sewers is going into sanitary sewers instead. When it rains hard, there are some nasty overflows into basements, streets and streams.

The problems are the result of years of infrastructure neglect, Martin said. The city didn’t always require developers to build adequate sewer systems, and many old sewers weren’t updated when they should have been. Lexington started treating sewage in 1918, but there was no dedicated fee for sewer system maintenance until the 1980s.

The city started addressing these problems in a serious way four years ago, replacing inadequate sewer pump stations around town and adding a new one. Fayette County has seven watersheds but only two sewage treatment plans. So a lot of sewage must be pumped all over town.

In addition to installing new sewers, Lexington is trying some creative solutions, such as storage tanks to handle short-term storm-water volume.

Officials also are exploring natural solutions. Environmental engineering has come a long way since the 1950s, when the creeks like those that flowed through what is now the Zandale neighborhood were rerouted into ugly concrete drainage canals.

These approaches are not without controversy. Julian Campbell, a botanist, and Robert Stauffer, a geochemist and hydrologist, wrote op-ed pieces in the Herald-Leader recently saying that the city’s remediation plan for Cane Run Creek between Interstate 75 and Citation Boulevard could do more environmental damage than good.

Campbell and Stauffer raise some good questions. But this is complicated stuff, and the city has some excellent environmental talent on its team, too. Officials must respond to their critiques thoroughly and publicly so citizens can have confidence that things are being done right.

In addition to fixing old problems, the consent decree will make sure Lexington doesn’t add new development without also adding the sewer infrastructure to handle it. Some people won’t like that, but it makes sense.

This whole process will be complicated, expensive and a lot of hassle. But it’s the right thing to do, and it will leave Lexington in a better position for future growth and prosperity.

To read Tom Martin’s Q&A with project director Charles Martin, director of the city’s Division of Water Quality, click here.

 


Chef’s tour highlights growth in Kentucky’s local food culture

October 29, 2013

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Chef Ouita Michel, left, talks with Jean and Leo Keene, who since 1988 have operated Blue Moon Farm in Madison County, which specializes in garlics. Michel said she has bought garlic from them for her restaurants for years. Michel led a tour of the Lexington Farmers Market on Saturday that included Claire Carpenter, second from left. Photos by Tom Eblen 

 

Ouita Michel doesn’t get to the Lexington Farmers Market much anymore.

Since the acclaimed chef and restaurant entrepreneur became one of the largest buyers of Kentucky vegetables, fruits and meats, her employees do most of the shopping, and many of the 50 local producers she buys from deliver.

The five restaurants she and husband Chris Michel have created since 2001 — Holly Hill Inn, Wallace Station Deli and Midway School Bakery in Woodford County, and Windy Corner Market and Smithtown Seafood in Lexington — have bought more than $1 million in Kentucky agricultural products.

Michel credits the flavor and quality of Kentucky food for her restaurants’ success. And that success has helped fuel a local-food renaissance that began in the 1970s with farmers markets and pioneer restaurants such as Alfalfa and Dudley’s.

The Fayette Alliance, a land-use advocacy group, recently asked Michel to give a tour of the Lexington Farmers Market. Michel said it was a good opportunity for her to meet new producers she might want to buy from — and she did meet some.

Many people are now willing to pay a little more for healthier, better-tasting food grown with fewer chemicals. They also like the idea of their money going to local farmers rather than giant corporations.

Kentucky’s local food economy began taking off in 2004, when the tobacco quota buyout program helped finance crop diversification. The state’s Kentucky Proud program then helped market those products.

Whenever possible, Michel said, her restaurants buy local food. For example, the lettuce and tomatoes for Windy Corner’s salads are grown 100 yards up the road at Berries on Bryan Station, a small, family-owned organic farm that also grows okra for Ramsey’s restaurants.

131026OuitaMichel0072About a dozen people showed up Saturday to take Michel’s tour. She walked them from stall to stall, looking for lesser-known vegetables, such as Hubbard squash and Jerusalem artichoke, and explaining how she likes to prepare them.

Michel introduced the group to several of her suppliers, including Eileen O’Donohue of Kentucky Lamb in Washington County, and Ann and Mac Stone of Elmwood Stock Farm in Scott County, the state’s largest certified organic farm.

“There is a seasonality to local food,” Michel said, and new techniques such as hoop houses have extended vegetable growing seasons in Kentucky.

Michel develops menus around seasonally available produce. Her restaurants also try to use almost all of the local cattle, chickens and lambs they buy, not just choice cuts.

“We need to eat all of the animal to make it work economically,” she said. “It’s also better for the farmers, and it’s just a more responsible thing to do.”

Michel’s newest restaurant is Smithtown Seafood, next to West Sixth Brewing in the Bread Box building at West Sixth and Jefferson streets. It serves fish and greens grown in an adjoining room by the urban-agriculture non-profit organization FoodChain, which uses a process called aquaponics. Brewery waste is fed to the fish, whose waste fertilizes greens grown under lamps.

“I know the Magic Beans people are here today, and I want to talk with them about buying their coffee for Smithtown,” Michel said at the beginning of her tour. Magic Beans roasts its coffee in a back room of the Bread Box building.

The University of Kentucky has played an important role in developing the local-food economy through its sustainable agriculture and food science programs, Michel said. So have processing plants such as Marksbury Farm Market in Lancaster.

Kentucky needs more commercial kitchen space and contract packaging plants, so farmers can process more of what they grow into high-profit, value-added products such as jellies and sauces, Michel said.

“We could produce a lot of artisanal pork products that could be shipped around the world, like Spanish ham is,” she said. “It’s just a matter of taking these well-known cultural foods that we’ve had in Kentucky for 200 years and developing and promoting them to a wider market.”

State and local officials who make economic development investment decisions too often overlook agriculture while focusing on trendy areas such as high technology, Michel said.

“If we could make some strategic investments in our food economy, we could have tremendous returns,” she said. “Economic development does not just mean guys in a room staring at computers.”

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Former Disney exec highlights value of natural beauty in cities

October 27, 2013

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Katy Moss Warner, center, who once led the American Horticulture Society, was in Lexington last week to promote the economic and aesthetic benefits to city landscape beautification. At a workshop with Lexington leaders Thursday, she talked with Kay Cannon, left, and Ellen Karpf. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

Beautiful landscapes enrich a city — well-tended flowers, trees, gardens and lawns. But when money is tight, it is easy to see them as frills, as costs to be cut.

What is the value of beauty? What is the cost of ugly?

The answer to both questions, says Katy Moss Warner, former president of the American Horticulture Society, is a lot.

Warner spent last week touring Lexington, speaking and meeting with people as an unpaid guest of Friends of the Arboretum and the Fayette County Master Gardeners.

Warner has a degree in landscape architecture and was a Loeb Fellow at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design. But she said she learned the economic value of beautiful landscapes during the 24 years she spent supervising a staff of 700 as director of horticulture and environmental initiatives at Walt Disney World in Florida.

Disney spends millions each year on advertising and new attractions to lure new visitors. Warner said she struggled to prove the economic return on investing in landscape until visitor surveys revealed some interesting facts: 75 percent of Disney World’s visitors were repeat customers. Why did they keep returning?

“Atmosphere,” she said. “The beauty of the landscape. This is helpful information not just for Walt Disney World but for cities. If cities are beautiful, people will come back. Horticulture can drive revenue.”

At a lecture Wednesday, Warner said many people have “plant blindness” — they often don’t notice the plants around them or realize their value. We move so fast in our daily lives that we fail to notice “the subtle music that truly is the beauty of nature.”

Many cities think plants are nice, but not necessary. Study after study shows they are wrong, she said.

When a city’s public and private spaces are clean and well-landscaped, people tend to be happier, healthier and care more about their neighbors and community. Urban tree canopies reduce energy costs and calm traffic. Indoor plants filter pollution and make people feel better. Good landscaping increases property values.

In places that are ugly, barren or junky, where there is a lot of noise and artificial light pollution, crime goes up and private investment goes down. People understand, consciously or subconsciously, that they don’t want to be there.

“Schools are probably the most derelict landscapes we have,” Warner said. “We design them like prisons.”

But schools are a perfect place to teach children the importance of natural beauty with school vegetable and flower gardens, and planting trees as legacies.

Studies have shown that gardens make good learning environments, especially for students who struggle in structured classrooms. Warner said the most popular attraction at Disney’s Epcot is the vegetable and hydroponic gardens at the Land Pavilion.

Warner is a board member and volunteer for the non-profit organization America in Bloom, which helps cities learn beautification strategies from one another. At a Thursday workshop, she made a pitch for Lexington to participate.

The workshop at the University of Kentucky was attended by Vice Mayor Linda Gorton; three more Urban County Council members; Sally Hamilton, the city’s chief administrative officer; and more than 40 leaders in Lexington’s landscape, horticulture and sustainable agriculture movements. Earlier in the week, Warner met with Mayor Jim Gray.

This was Warner’s first visit to Lexington. She remarked on what a clean city it is for its size, in both affluent and not-so-affluent neighborhoods. She also was impressed by local food and recycling programs, and by good examples of historic preservation and adaptive reuse of old buildings.

In an interview afterward, I asked Warner what she would do to improve Lexington. Her observations were perceptive, especially considering she had spent only three days looking around.

“I think it’s a shame that so much of the historic fabric has been lost downtown, but those spaces offer an opportunity to bring back character through horticulture,” she said, adding that she thinks the Town Branch Commons plan is brilliant. “That could really be a signature for the city.”

Warner thinks Lexington also has a lot of opportunity for beautification by planting native plants, community gardens, installing rooftop greenhouses and by protecting existing assets such as the majestic, centuries-old trees that dot the landscape.

Lexington seems to have fewer walking paths and biking trails than other cities its size, Warner said, so there is an opportunity to create more of them to get people outside and closer to the landscape.

“As a community you also seem to have amazing talent, an amazing spirit, an amazing history,” she said. “I do believe that it takes the whole community to make the community beautiful.”


Forester’s new non-profit aims to save ancient Bluegrass trees

October 5, 2013

An ancient blue ash tree on a Fayette County horse farm.  Photo by Tom Kimmerer

An ancient blue ash tree on a Fayette County horse farm.  © Photo by Tom Kimmerer

 

What makes Central Kentucky’s landscape unique? Rolling pastures. Grazing horses. Stacked-stone walls. Four-plank fences. Antebellum mansions. Black tobacco barns.

But one distinctive feature is often overlooked: centuries-old trees.

Many of the enormous oak, hickory and ash trees scattered throughout the Bluegrass were here before Daniel Boone ever heard of Kentucky, much less explored it in the mid-1700s.

“I believe that we have more old, pre-settlement trees than any other urban and agricultural landscape in the country,” said Tom Kimmerer, a tree physiologist with a doctorate in forestry and botany.

But these leafy giants are rapidly disappearing, and Kimmerer thinks neglect and mismanagement are as much to blame as developers’ chainsaws.

“As we lose these trees,” he said, “I think we lose an important characteristic of the Bluegrass.”

Tom Kimmerer. Photo by Tom Eblen

Tom Kimmerer.   Photo by Tom Eblen

Kimmerer is writing and photographing a book to raise awareness of these trees, many of which are more than 300 years old. He also is creating a non-profit organization, Venerable Trees Inc., to identify remaining specimens, research the best ways to take care of them and teach landowners how to do it.

“I believe that these trees could easily live another 500 years, many of them,” he said. “We know that some oaks can live beyond 1,000 years.”

Kimmerer has created a webpage (Venerabletrees.org/locate) for citizens to report “venerable” trees they know of. He will have a workshop Oct. 12 at Floracliff Nature Preserve for people wanting to know more about these trees. Details: Venerabletrees.org/classes.

And because many slow-growth tree varieties do not reproduce well naturally in an increasingly urbanized environment, Kimmerer hopes to propagate seedlings branded as progeny of some of Lexington’s most iconic specimens.

“I would like people in the Bluegrass to identify with these trees more,” he said. “So instead of just planting any old thing you can get from the nursery, we develop a tradition of planting our native trees, because they are so magnificent and so long-lived.”

When settlers arrived in Central Kentucky in the 1770s, they found a unique landscape with fields of cane and grass dotted with bur, shumard and chinkapin oaks, blue ash and a hickory they called kingnut, shellbark or shagbark.

“These old trees were kept because settlers had compelling reasons to keep them,” Kimmerer said, noting that they helped shade livestock pastures and decorate the estates of wealthy landowners.

There is no way to tell the age of a tree by looking at it; a core sample must be drilled and growth rings counted. It is a time-consuming process. But very old trees give visual clues: cylindrical, rather than tapered, trunks; stout, twisted branch patterns; tufted groups of leaves at the ends of branches.

Not all giant trees here are very old. For example, there are many huge sycamores, but Kimmerer thinks they came after settlement when much of the cane had been grazed off. Scientists know that many of the large ginkgo trees around Lexington descend from Japanese specimens Henry Clay planted at his Ashland estate.

Many old-growth trees have been lost to suburban development. A 1950 survey of bur oaks in Fayette County found about 400. A similar survey in 1978 found 180. When Kimmerer replicated the survey last spring, he found 43. (However, he found about that many more by surveying along roads built since 1950).

A few years ago, Kimmerer found the most magnificent blue ash he had ever seen at a development site off Winchester Road. It had survey markers around it, which he thought meant the developer was planning to keep it. When he returned a few days later, the giant tree was a pile of mulch.

Some people take down old-growth trees because they incorrectly think they are dying and could pose a liability. Blue ash usually continue to thrive despite dead tops or hollow spots from lightning strikes. Even the emerald ash borer, a beetle now decimating many varieties of ash, usually doesn’t kill blue ash, Kimmerer said.

He recalled talking with a farmer who thought his damaged blue ash needed to be cut down. “I told him, yea, I doubt it’s got more than 300 good years left,” he said. “He was surprised.”

Because Lexington’s venerable trees are living historical markers, they often are found in what now seem like odd places. Kimmerer took me to one such tree along South Broadway, in front of an Avis rental car office. Previously, it was part of the vast lawn of Ingleside, a mansion built in 1852 and demolished in 1964.

Another example is the huge bur oak surrounded by a parking deck at the medical office complex across Harrodsburg Road from St. Joseph Hospital. It was the largest of a grove of bur oaks there as late as the 1950s. Only public outcry kept it from being cut down.

Kimmerer said some Lexington builders now realize that preserving these trees can create valuable amenities for their developments. Ball Homes kept a giant bur oak, the Blackford Oak, in a development near Hamburg. The neighborhood is called Blackford Oaks.

Many ancient trees have been saved from the chainsaw only to decline and die because landowners neglect or mismanage them.

“In England, where they have a long tradition of taking care of old trees, they have a huge manual for managing what they call veteran trees,” Kimmerer said. “We need something comparable to that. We know that good care can make a big difference.”

The most frequent problem Kimmerer sees is old trees whose lives are being shortened by compacted soil and the use of herbicides and fertilizer around them. “You would think fertilizer would be good for trees,” he said. “But the faster a tree grows, the shorter its lifetime.”

Kimmerer said landowners could learn a lot about managing old-growth trees from Keeneland, the Kentucky Horse Park, several area horse farms and neighborhood associations such as Squire Oak.

Perhaps the best local steward, he said, is Lexington Cemetery. Begun in 1849 in a grove of old-growth trees, the cemetery has been nurturing and planting bur oaks and other native varieties ever since. The beautiful cemetery uses no herbicides and little fertilizer, and its ancient trees are thriving.

Kimmerer hopes Venerable Trees Inc. can have a big impact on preservation efforts, because many old-growth trees are in the areas near Hamburg now slated for development. With good planning, those ancient trees could survive and thrive as neighborhood icons for generations.

“There are so few of these trees left now,” Kimmerer said. “We need to be more conscious of them and do more to preserve them.”


Officials open extension of Lexington’s first recreational rail trail

September 30, 2013

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Mayor Jim Gray gets help from Maya Wijesiri, 3, and her mother, Wendy Wijesiri, in cutting the ribbon opening the second phase of the Brighton East Rail Rail.  Photo by Tom Eblen

Lexington officials Monday opened the first extension of the the Brighton East Trail, Fayette County’s first rail trail.

The 12-foot-wide recreational trail had run a mile from Bryant Road to Pleasant Ridge Drive, through the new residential neighborhoods around Hamburg. The one-mile extension takes the trail along an old railroad bed into the country as far as Walnut Grove Road.

The original trail, completed in 2007, has been so popular that area residents wanted the extension, said district Council member Kevin Stinnett. As Stinnett, Mayor Jim Gray and Council member Harry Clarke prepared to cut the ribbon on the new section, people from the area were already using it for running, cycling and taking children for stroller rides.

Eventually, city officials hope to extend the trail out to the Clark County line and in to connect with the Liberty Park Trail.

The trail extension was funded by $450,000 in federal, state and local money. But key to the project was an easement donation, 100 feet wide and one-mile long, by property owner Marion Clark. She made the donation because she realized what a good amenity the trail would be to future development of her property, said Keith Lovan, the city engineer who heads local trail projects.

The wide easement allowed the city to preserve existing trees from the old rail line, as well as plant more trees to keep the trail pleasantly shaded in hot weather.

Many other states have developed extensive trail systems using abandoned rail lines. But that has been difficult in Kentucky, because abandoned rail lines were often acquired by adjacent property owners.

Parking for the new trail is at Pleasant Ridge Park, 1350 Pleasant Ridge Drive.


The gift of nature: new preserve showcases Palisades’ ecology

September 29, 2013

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Evan Edwards, a fourth grader at Camp Dick Robinson Elementary School in Garrard County, looks up an on old-growth American Beech tree after reading an informational sign about it at the Nature Conservancy’s new Dupree Nature Preserve along the Kentucky River palisades.  Photos by Tom Eblen

 

LANCASTER — Thomas P. Dupree Sr. spent his career in high finance, but his heart has always been in nature.

While building a successful municipal bond brokerage in Lexington, Dupree spent more than three decades of his spare time as a volunteer, board member and chairman of The Nature Conservancy, a nonprofit organization that works to preserve and protect America’s special wild places.

Dupree said he fell in love with Kentucky’s natural landscape as an Eagle Scout growing up in Harlan, where he spent as much time as he could in the woods. Thanks to his generosity, more Kentuckians will be able to do the same.

The conservancy on Oct. 5 will open its newest and most developed Central Kentucky property: The 300-acre Dupree Nature Preserve. Located on Polly’s Bend with 3 miles of Kentucky River frontage, the preserve is a short drive off U.S. 27 south of Nicholasville in Garrard County.

dupreemapLike Lexington’s city-owned Raven Run Nature Preserve, the Dupree preserve will have accessible public trails and environmental education facilities and programs for schools.

“I could only dream at one time that I would have enough money to do this,” Dupree, 83, said as he and his wife, Ann, took a preview tour of the preserve last week. Despite battling Parkinson’s disease for two decades, Dupree walked the trails with vigor.

While conservancy staff member Jim Aldrich showed the Duprees around, the preserve hosted an inaugural group of fourth-graders from Camp Dick Robinson Elementary School in Garrard County.

“Kids who come out here can get a deep feeling that this belongs to them,” Dupree said. “This belongs to everybody, and I hope it gives them a feeling of wealth — natural wealth.”

Land restoration efforts at the preserve so far have involved removing invasive Asian species such as honeysuckle and winter creeper and the planting of 12,000 native trees.

Facilities will eventually include a dock, a picnic pavilion and educational information about the natural landscape and history of the bend, where Daniel Boone and other early pioneers once hunted and lived. Bluegrass Greensource will help with educational programming.

In addition to Dupree and other private donors, including Warren Rosenthal, the conservancy received help on the project from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the Kentucky River Authority, Toyota USA, Kentucky American Water, Sterling Ventures and foundations affiliated with Ashland Inc., LG&E and KU Energy and the Hinkle family.

Over the past 38 years, the conservancy has partnered with government and other private conservation organizations to protect 45,786 Kentucky acres. That includes nature preserves and 6,534 acres of privately owned land put under conservation easements that limit development.

The conservancy’s biggest Kentucky acquisition ever was completed earlier this month: 4,241 acres near the Ohio River in Crittenden County as part of a project to improve water quality. After purchase, the land was transferred to the state, whose wildlife and forestry divisions will manage it.

The conservancy is working to preserve wetlands in the Obion Creek/Bayou du Chien watersheds of far Western Kentucky and portions of the Green River. In Eastern Kentucky, it works with energy companies to try to minimize or mitigate environmental damage from coal mining in sensitive areas.

In Central Kentucky, the conservancy’s efforts have focused on the palisades region of the Kentucky River between Boonesborough and Frankfort, which increasingly are threatened by suburban sprawl. Through easements and nature preserves, the conservancy has protected 3,000 acres along the river.

The Dupree preserve represents a new direction for the conservancy, said Terry Cook, the state director.

Rather than just saving sensitive natural areas from development or damage, the organization wants to get more people outside to enjoy them. The conservancy also wants to improve environmental education to create future generations of advocates like Tom Dupree.

The conservancy has been doing more environmental education with adults, too, including helping corporations figure out how to reduce their impact on the planet and understand how a cleaner environment can reduce their operating costs.

“Then we started looking at how we could reduce our own footprint,” Cook said.

That effort includes a new Nature Conservancy state headquarters office in a restored 19th-century house on Woodland Avenue. The project has included both historic preservation and incorporation of new energy-saving technology.

Cook said the building will be made available to partner organizations for meetings and events. Next year, the conservancy hopes to join Gallery Hop and showcase local artists and photographers whose work depicts Kentucky’s natural landscape.

“We’re at the point where we’ve got a foundation in place,” Cook said. “Now we’re looking what the future opportunities might be.”

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A beautiful state, forever challenged to live up to its potential

September 28, 2013

Indian Fort Mountain, Berea. Photo by Tom Eblen

The view from Indian Fort Mountain near Berea. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

Every state is unique. So what makes Kentucky so special?

To begin to answer that question, you must go back to 1750, when the first land-hungry white Virginians crossed the Appalachian mountains to see what was on the other side. What they found created quite a buzz.

John Filson, who published the first book about Kentucky in 1784, boasted that it was “the new Eden … like the land of promise, flowing with milk and honey.” A frontier preacher is said to have explained heaven to his flock as “a Kentucky of a place.”

Of course, this was long before strip mining and strip malls.

Still, people continue to be awed by Kentucky’s beauty: lush mountains, rolling meadows, scenic rivers, vast limestone caves and manicured horse farms.

Kentucky’s fertile land has always made it an agriculture powerhouse. The Bluegrass region’s karst geology and calcium-rich soil is the foundation for two signature industries: strong-boned horses and pure water for bourbon whiskey.

Originally, Kentucky was considered the West. When the Civil War came, this citadel of slavery remained in the Union. Once the Union won, many Kentuckians sided with the Confederacy. Go figure.

But Kentucky has often been a paradox. For example, 95 percent of all bourbon whiskey (and, really, all that’s worth drinking) is made in Kentucky. Yet, you can’t legally buy it in more than one-third of the state’s 120 counties. Of course, that doesn’t mean a lot of it isn’t consumed there.

Kentuckians love to eat, too, from spicy Western Kentucky barbecue to the delicately flavored cucumber spread of Louisville known as benedictine. Ask people on the other side of the world what they know about Kentucky and they are likely to reply: “Ah, Kentucky Fried Chicken!”

Kentuckians tend to be friendly, independent, fun-loving, stubborn and resistant to change. The local cultures we have created vary widely from the Cumberland mountains to the Jackson Purchase. The common denominator seems to be a passion for basketball.

Unless we are from one of the state’s larger cities, Kentuckians tend to identify themselves by their native county. And we have more and smaller counties than almost any state.

But we still love our little towns. We have given many of them colorful names, such as Red Bird, Hi Hat, Cutshin, Mousie and Fancy Farm. Occasionally, imagination has failed us and we have copied the names of European cities, but we have insisted on pronouncing them differently.

During its first decades of statehood, Kentucky was often a national leader and innovator. But the state seems never to have fully recovered from the Civil War and the human slavery that caused it. For a century and a half, Kentucky’s progress has always seemed like three steps forward, two steps back.

Still, some of us think Kentucky is capable of being a national leader rather than a persistent laggard. Kentuckians are hard workers, blessed with a central location, abundant resources and a beautiful place to live — when we don’t insist on messing it up.

The name Kentucky is derived from languages of the American Indian tribes we took this land from, but nobody is sure what it really meant. Some say it meant “dark and bloody ground.” Others say, “the land of tomorrow.” While a lot has happened to support the first theory, I choose to believe the second.

Now, would somebody please pass the barbecue and freshen my bourbon? We have a lot of work to do after dinner.

 


Landscape architect helped shape the face of Lexington

September 23, 2013

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Retired landscape architect D. Lyle Aten.  Photo by Tom Eblen

 

You may not have heard of Lyle Aten, but if you live in Lexington, you see his life’s work every day.

Since moving here in 1952, the landscape architect has had a hand in creating master plans and site designs for more than 60 projects in Central Kentucky.

Aten and his firm helped design neighborhoods such as Eastland, Cardinal Valley, Lansdowne, Stonewall, Merrick Place, Hamburg, Hartland, Beaumont and Wellesley Heights.

His shopping centers include Lexington Green, Hamburg, Beaumont, Tates Creek Center, Lansdowne, Lansbrook and Palomar.

Aten helped with the realignment of Main and Vine streets downtown and the epic reconstruction of Paris Pike. He worked on the IBM campus, Commonwealth Stadium, Coldstream Research Park and the Lexington Legends’ baseball field.

He helped plan Lexington’s Jacobson and Phoenix parks, as well as several state parks, including the lodge complex at Lake Barkley.

“I’ve been very fortunate,” said Aten, 86. “I was in the right place at the right time. And, most of the time, I had clients who let me do what I thought was right.”

Aten grew up in Macomb, Ill., and didn’t know what a landscape architect was until a career counselor gave him an aptitude test and pointed him toward the profession and the University of Illinois.

“Fortunately, I was on the GI Bill or I couldn’t have done it,” he said.

His timing was perfect: one of his instructors was Hideo Sasaki, who would go on to become one of America’s most influential landscape architects and the longtime head of Harvard University’s landscape architecture program.

After graduation, Aten joined the Peoria, Ill., firm Scruggs & Hammond, which sent him to Lexington to work on a couple of projects. Kentucky had only a half-dozen landscape architects at the time, he said.

“That was good and bad,” Aten said. “People didn’t know what a landscape architect was. It wasn’t about putting bushes around a house.”

As Lexington began an era of rapid growth, the Scruggs & Hammond office Aten headed found plenty of work and grew to 30 employees. In addition to design work, Aten taught as a longtime adjunct at the University of Kentucky, wrote several local environmental ordinances and, after retirement in 2000, served eight years on the city planning commission.

All of that made me think Aten would be a good person to talk with about development in Lexington — the successes, the mistakes and lessons for the future.

Lexington has a better history of planning and managing growth than most places. That has included protecting rural land and fertile soils with the nation’s first Urban Services Boundary and the Purchase of Development Rights program.

“Very few places in the United States have gone through this process, where we give value to our environment,” he said.

But a lot of mistakes were made, too.

“The first thing you have to do is to find out what nature is doing and respond to nature’s systems,” Aten said. “When you start to conflict with those systems, you get into some expensive problems.”

Among Lexington’s mistakes: trying to bury or reroute streams, which contributed to flooding and water-quality problems. The best example of that was the decision a century ago to bury Town Branch Creek beneath downtown.

“Now we’re going back and rediscovering the quality of that drainage way there and making it an asset rather than something you turn your back on,” he said.

Aten has been impressed with the master planning processes being used for the Rupp District and Town Branch projects downtown, he said.

“I think it can work out real well,” he said. “I really appreciate the approach that the mayor is taking to these things.”

The key to good planning and design decisions, Aten said, is a process that includes sound research, a collaboration of talented professionals and public involvement.

Metro Lexington must find better ways to increase density, do more mixed-use development and limit sprawl, especially in low-tax counties surrounding Fayette where tax revenues never manage to pay for sprawl.

“We have to learn to live closer together in more quality ways,” Aten said. “But you fit the city to the land. You don’t alter the land to fit the other pattern.”


Execution will be key to success of downtown management district

September 9, 2013

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There are more than 1,200 downtown management districts in cities across the country. New York City has made extensive use of them to transform parts of the metropolis, such as this area of Midtown Manhattan, which was photographed in April. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

The revitalization of downtown Lexington has made a lot of progress in recent years, but there has been a missing link: a well-funded private partnership to take up where city services leave off.

The Downtown Lexington Corp. hopes to fix that. The organization last week started a petition drive among property owners to ask the Urban County Council to create a downtown management district.

Such districts, which have been effective in many other cities, work like a suburban homeowner’s association. Property owners pay an annual assessment that goes to provide amenities and services above and beyond what city government provides.

Lexington’s proposed downtown management district would include 373 properties with 223 owners and a total taxable value of almost $280 million. The proposed assessment would be $1 for each $1,000 of assessed tax value; so the owner of a $3 million office building would pay $3,000 a year, while the owner of a $300,000 home would pay $300.

How that money was spent would be determined by a board of downtown property owners and tenants. Proposed uses include streetscape improvements, better “wayfinding” signage, more marketing and the hiring of “ambassadors” to walk the streets to help visitors and improve safety and security.

State law requires the petition to get support from at least 33 percent of property owners whose holdings total at least 51 percent of property values. But DLC President Renee Jackson said she won’t take the petition to council unless it has support from at least half of the affected property owners.

Even if approved, the management district would have to be reauthorized after five years, and a majority of property owners could vote to disband it at any time.

Since New Orleans created the first management district in 1974, more than 1,200 have sprung up across the country. From a regional perspective, Lexington is late to the party. Louisville’s downtown management district was organized in 1991, Knoxville’s in 1993, Nashville’s in 1994 and Cincinnati’s in 1997.

Louisville’s district, the only one in Kentucky, has worked well.

“The focus on clean and safe in the downtown district has allowed the center city to be managed in a way that is similar to the suburban shopping center,” said Bill Weyland, a major downtown Louisville developer whose projects have included the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory and the Glassworks building.

“It is important for downtowns, which have numerous property owners, to have management districts so that there can be uniform center city services that rival the single-owner competitors in the suburbs,” Weyland added.

I saw the potential of a management district firsthand when I worked in downtown Atlanta between 1988 and 1998. The Atlanta Downtown Improvement District, created in 1995, made a big difference.

No American city has made more extensive use of management districts than New York, which now has 67 of what it calls business-improvement districts that pump $100 million a year into amenities and services. As a frequent visitor to New York over the years, the impact they have had is stunning.

When I was there in April, the pocket parks along Broadway in Midtown Manhattan were clean and beautiful. Tulips, jonquils and hyacinths were everywhere, as were the people enjoying those public spaces. Many of Gotham’s once-mean streets are now family-friendly.

One dramatic transformation is Bryant Park, on 42nd Street behind the New York Public Library. Once a hangout for drug dealers, the park is now a beautiful and popular oasis that has attracted a lot of new private commercial development. The park is managed by Bryant Park Corp., which is funded and overseen by area property owners.

A Lexington downtown management district is a low-risk proposal with the potential to do a lot of good. But it is no silver bullet.

For one thing, the proposed assessment would raise less than $300,000 a year, which really isn’t much money. The district’s board would have to pay close attention to priorities, management and follow-up, while taking care not to duplicate existing efforts by others.

Downtown property owners should get behind this plan, but with the knowledge that leadership and execution will make or break it. Sadly, that is where so many of Lexington’s civic improvement projects sputter and die.

dmdMap

 

IF YOU GO

Downtown Lexington Management District public meetings

What: Public information meetings to discuss a proposed taxing district downtown

When: 9 a.m. Sept. 9; 4 p.m. Sept. 12; noon Sept. 13; and 4 p.m. Sept. 16

Where: Central Bank seventh-floor training center, 300 W. Vine St.

Learn more: Dlmdonline.com

 

 

 


Plan to turn farm into open-pit quarry riles Clark County residents

August 24, 2013

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The Allen Co., which for decades has operated an underground limestone quarry on the Madison County side of the Kentucky River at Boonesborough, has bought this farm on the Clark County side of the river and has asked for a zone change to turn it into an open-pit quarry. The new quarry would cover all of the land shown in this photo. The existing quarry across the river can be seen at right.  Photos by Tom Eblen

WINCHESTER — A diverse committee of citizens spent more than two years writing Clark County’s 2012 comprehensive land-use plan. It calls for the area near Fort Boonesborough State Park and the Kentucky River to be managed primarily for farms, homes, tourism and historic preservation.

So imagine the surprise of Deborah Garrison and her neighbors when they heard the county’s staff planner had recommended that the Allen Company should be allowed to turn the scenic, 103-acre farm beside their homes into an open-pit limestone quarry.

“Our home of 30 years is being threatened by big business,” said Garrison, a retired state employee. “It’s just such a blatant power grab.”

For more than 50 years, the Allen Company has operated an underground quarry beneath the hillside across the river in Madison County. The quarry sends a steady stream of gravel trucks up and down the steep hills of Highway 627 in both directions.

But there hasn’t been a quarry on the Clark County side of the river since the 1940s. That is when the Allen Company closed what is now an abandoned, fenced-off pit and tunnels adjacent to the farm where Ben Shearer raised tobacco, cattle and prize-winning sheep until his death in 1993.

MAPThe Allen Company recently bought the farm from Shearer’s heirs and filed for a zoning change, from agriculture to heavy industry. An Aug. 6 hearing before Clark County’s Planning Commission lasted four hours. The hearing was continued for five more hours last Wednesday night.

At the second hearing, four Allen Company customers in the audience spoke in favor of the zone change, saying Clark County needs a plentiful supply of crushed stone for development. Everyone else in the packed Clark Circuit Courtroom seemed to be against it. They included residents near the proposed quarry site, who hastily retained environmental lawyer Hank Graddy to help them fight the zone change.

The Allen Company’s attorney and witnesses argued that the company needs more quarry capacity, although they acknowledged the company has leased 172 acres on the Madison County side they have yet to mine. They also said that additional production in Clark County would be offset by less production in Madison.

To justify the zone change, the company argued that the hilly farm is no longer suitable for agriculture and would make a better quarry because of a 570-foot-thick shelf of limestone beneath the soil.

But opponents disputed those arguments and cited many other concerns. They worry about dust, noise and the potential for blasting damage to nearby homes, wells and springs. They worry about the loss of scenic views in a tourist area of historic significance because of its role in Kentucky’s early settlement and western migration. And they worry about putting more slow-moving gravel trucks on a busy, hilly highway that is often shrouded in river fog.

A zoning change for this quarry would be “a classic case of spot zoning,” Graddy told the commission. “Spot zoning is illegal. It is why we have planning and zoning in the first place.

“Your obligation is to follow your plan,” Graddy said, noting that the comp plan has no provisions at all for quarries.

But Allen Company attorney John Rompf argued that the comp is not a “straightjacket,” and he said commissioners should consider the company’s important role in local economic development.

After nine hours of witnesses, testimony, questions and arguments, the commission voted 6-1 against the zoning change. But that isn’t the end of the story. The final decision rests with Clark County’s three-member Fiscal Court, which could consider an appeal as soon as Wednesday.

Opponents of the rezoning include two former Planning Commission members who do not live near the proposed quarry.

Chuck Witt, who served on the commission in the late 1970s and said he has missed attending only eight meetings since then, said at last Wednesday’s hearing that permitting a quarry on that site would be “the most egregious zone change that this county would ever experience. If ever there were an instance when a staff report should be rejected, this is it.”

Clare Sipple, who manages the nearby Lower Howard’s Creek Nature and Heritage Preserve, agrees. She served on the Planning Commission from 2001-2011 and felt so strongly about the rezoning proposal that she helped arrange for Graddy to represent opponents.

“We’ve got no problem with the Allen Company itself — it has always been a good employer here — it’s the way they’ve gone about this,” she said. “It’s very political.”

If Fiscal Court were to overturn the Planning Commission’s decision, Sipple said, it would undermine Clark County’s whole planning and zoning history and process.

“You might as well throw the comp plan out the window,” she said. “Nobody’s land would be safe.”

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The proposed new quarry site is the hillside around the clearing in the upper right of this photo, which shows the Allen Co.’s Boonesboro Quarry across the Kentucky River.  


Kentucky poet Maurice Manning gains a national reputation

August 20, 2013

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 Poet Maurice Manning lives in an 1850s farmhouse on 20 acres near Springfield, fulfilling a pledge he made when he was in graduate school in Alabama. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

SPRINGFIELD — Clouds were gathering for an early evening shower as Maurice Manning leashed his three big dogs and took off down one of the mowed paths that criss-cross almost 20 acres behind his 1850s farmhouse.

“One of my vows when I was in grad school in Alabama was that if I ever made any money from writing, I would buy land in Kentucky,” he said as we ambled through woods, past a stream and across meadows of wildflowers in full August bloom.

“Most farmers wouldn’t think much of what I’ve done with the place,” Manning said of his land, which was grazed and cultivated before nature started reclaiming it. Manning’s daily two-mile walks help his mind harvest a different kind of Kentucky crop.

Manning, 47, who pronounces his first name “Morris,” is attracting national attention as a poet. His first book, Lawrence Booth’s Book of Visions, won the prestigious Yale Series of Younger Poets Award in 2001. His fourth book, The Common Man, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in poetry in 2010.

Manning3Manning was a National Book Awards poetry judge last year and has been a Guggenheim fellow. His poems have appeared in The New Yorker, The Southern Review and The Virginia Quarterly Review. His fifth poetry collection,The Gone and the Going Away, was published in April to good reviews.

The Danville native, whose ancestors helped settle Clay and Rockcastle counties, had divided his time between the Washington County farm he and his wife, Amanda, bought in 2001 and Indiana, where he taught English at Indiana University and, before that, DePauw University.

“For a long time, I felt like I had one foot in Kentucky and one foot in Indiana,” said Manning, who earned his undergraduate degree from Earlham College, a Quaker school in Richmond, Ind.

So two years ago, Manning gave up the security of tenure at Indiana to become an English professor at Transylvania University. He also is a writer in residence, along with another distinguished Kentucky poet, Richard Taylor.

“I love teaching, and teaching at Transy is especially enjoyable because the classes are small and you can get into intense conversations with students,” he said. “I knew I wanted to teach Kentucky students for a variety of reasons. I just feel like I owe a debt to this state since everything I write about is Kentucky.”

The poems in Manning’s most recent book are like tiny short stories with colorful characters from “Fog Town Holler” in the Kentucky of his imagination. His carefully crafted verse is filled with wry humor, evocation of traditional ways of life and a reverence for nature.

“There’s something about the organized rhythm of a poetic line that is a real source of meditation,” said Manning, who plays guitar and is learning the banjo.

Manning has finished another book of poetry, as yet untitled, that includes “intense descriptions of the natural world,” he said. “The motive for that is recognizing how thoroughly we are destroying the natural world.”

Manning said he began writing poetry privately in junior high. He assumed that nobody else was still writing poetry, because all of the poets he studied in English class were dead. That changed when poet Denise Levertov visited a class he was taking at Earlham.

“It made everything seem less mysterious,” he said. “She wasn’t an aloof, obscure person.”

Later, Manning got to know James Still, the celebrated Eastern Kentucky writer and poet, when he was in his 80s. And he found ways to connect with dead poets whose work he admired. In 2009, Manning visited England and walked the landscape that inspired the Romantic poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Coleridge.

Another inspiration was fellow Kentuckian Robert Penn Warren, the only person to win Pulitzer Prizes for both poetry (twice) and fiction. On April 24, Manning was invited to the Library of Congress in Washington to read Warren’s poetry during a celebration of what would have been Warren’s 108th birthday.

Manning said Warren was one of the last prominent American poets who thought poetry was a place for philosophical meditation, for asking profound questions about life. That, he said, is where he hopes his own poetry is heading.

“One of the nice things about being a poet is there’s no money in it,” Manning said. “Believe it or not, that gives you a lot of freedom.”

Manning2Maurice Manning has cut four miles of walking paths through his 20-acre farm.