Land-use decisions in rural Fayette County require delicate balance

March 28, 2015

BooneCreekBurgess Carey rides a zip line at his controversial canopy tour, which city officials shut down. The dispute prompted a three-year examination of ways to add more public recreation and tourism opportunities in rural Fayette County which is ongoing. Photo by Tom Eblen


A tightly managed, three-year effort to expand public recreation and tourism opportunities in rural Fayette County started coming unwound Thursday as the Planning Commission prepared to vote on it.

Several commission members expressed concern that the proposed zoning ordinance text amendment, or ZOTA, which they and the Urban County Council must approve, would be too restrictive.

They started offering amendments, then put off the matter for more discussion until May 21 and a possible vote May 28. The delay was wise, because these complex zoning decisions have implications far beyond recreation.

The challenge with the ZOTA is striking the right balance of private property rights, public access and the long-term preservation of horse farms, other agriculture and an environmentally sensitive landscape that the World Monuments Fund has recognized as one of the most special and endangered places on earth.

It is important to note that the ZOTA wouldn’t change rules about what property owners can do on their land for their own enjoyment. It affects only new public recreation and tourism-related land uses, both commercial and non-profit.

Part of the problem with the ZOTA process has been that it grew out of a nasty dispute between Burgess Carey and some of his neighbors in the Boone Creek area off old Richmond Road.

Carey has a permit to operate a private fishing club on his property in Boone Creek Gorge. But he expanded it into a public canopy tour business, in which people toured the gorge from treetop platforms using zip lines and suspension bridges.

Neighbors opposed the business, and city officials shut it down.

Carey’s aggressiveness antagonized officials and made it easy for opponents to brand him an outlaw rather than debate the merits of having a canopy tour on Boone Creek. That’s a shame, because it is a well-designed, well-located facility that the public should be able to enjoy.

The Boone Creek dispute prompted the ZOTA process and made it contentious from the beginning. One result was that the city task force created to study the issue wasn’t as open as it should have been to public participation and diverse viewpoints. Hence, last week’s Planning Commission fireworks.

Suburban sprawl is incompatible with animal agriculture, especially high-strung racehorses. Development takes the Inner Bluegrass region’s valuable agricultural soils out of production.

That is why Lexington in 1958 became the first U.S. city to create an urban growth boundary. Without it and other rural land-use restrictions, horses and farms could have been crowded out of Fayette County years ago.

Farmers are understandably concerned about any nearby commercial development. But some other people think it is unfair for traditional agriculture to have a monopoly on rural land use.

The balancing act gets even more complicated in the environmentally sensitive and ruggedly beautiful land along the Kentucky River Palisades. It is an ideal place for low-impact outdoor recreation and environmental education. But most public access is restricted to the city’s Raven Run Nature Sanctuary.

Preserving these natural areas is complicated, because they need constant care to stop the spread of invasive plant species, especially bush honeysuckle and wintercreeper euonymus, which choke out native vegetation. It is a huge problem.

Much of the land along the river is owned by people dedicated to its care and preservation. Many spend a lot of money and effort fighting invasive species.

But, as a matter of public policy, it is risky for Lexington to count on landowners’ wealth and good intentions forever. It makes sense to give them some business opportunities to help pay for conservation, especially since much of this land is not suitable for traditional agriculture.

Most Fayette County rural land is zoned “agriculture rural.” The ZOTA proposal would create a new “agriculture natural” zoning option along the river with some different permitted uses.

Much of the debate about the ZOTA’s treatment of both zones is about what land uses should be “primary” by right and which should be “conditional,” requiring approval by the city Board of Adjustment. The conditional use process allows for more site-specific regulation, but it can be cumbersome for landowners.

Carey’s lawyer, John Park, who lives on adjacent property along Boone Creek, points out that poor farming practices in that area can be more environmentally destructive than some commercial and recreational uses. But state law gives farmers a lot of freedom from local zoning regulations.

One criticism of the ZOTA proposal — and other parts of Lexington’s zoning code, as well — is that in trying to regulate every conceivable land use to keep “bad” things from happening, the rules aren’t flexible enough to allow “good” things to happen.

These are complicated issues with a lot of good people and good points of view on all sides. More frank and open discussion is needed to reach something close to a community consensus.

Increasing public access to rural recreation and tourism is important, both for Lexington’s economy and quality of life. But it also is necessary for preservation.

People protect what they love. Finding more ways for people to connect with this irreplaceable landscape and agrarian-equine culture will nurture that love.

Broader discussion could find right balance in rural land use; compromise needed in bitter dispute over Boone Creek project

June 9, 2013

A city task force created 15 months ago to consider zoning-law changes to allow more recreation and tourism opportunities in rural Fayette County recently made its report to the Urban County Council.

The Zoning Ordinance Text Amendment Work Group did some good work, but a broader public discussion is needed before council takes action. Plus, there is an elephant in the room that must be dealt with.

Here is the central question: what are the best ways to protect, preserve and enhance Lexington’s unique rural landscape and the economic models needed to sustain it in the future?

Lexington adopted a rural land management plan in 1999 to keep suburban sprawl from pushing out agriculture and damaging sensitive natural areas along the Kentucky River and its tributaries.

The work group thought more specificity was needed, and it has proposed a detailed list of dos, don’ts and maybes regarding rural land use. But some of its recommendations would further re- strict recreation and tourism rather than expand them.

In deciding what should and should not be allowed, the work group made subjective judgments that went beyond whether a use or activity would harm the land or neighbors. If state law allowed the city to regulate agriculture as closely as this plan regulates everything else, farmers would howl.

Agriculture is a big, important business in Lexington, and farmers are justifiably concerned about anything that might encroach on them. But agriculture has always been evolving. Farmers should be wary of banning or restricting low-impact activities they may need someday to make a living on their land.

Like it or not, the work group has been tainted by a nasty dispute between Burgess Carey, who wants to create an outdoor recreation center at his Boone Creek Anglers Club, and his neighbor, former Council member Gloria Martin. Each has many fired-up supporters, and the rhetoric and behavior on both sides have been over-the-top.

Vice Mayor Linda Gorton formed and chaired helped lead the work group in response to the Boone Creek dispute. But the group often seemed hostile to Carey and tried to exclude him from the dialogue. Only one of the group’s 15 members ever accepted Carey’s invitations to visit Boone Creek to see what he wants to do.

Carey wants to turn his property, which is unsuitable for agriculture, into a low-impact outdoor recreation area featuring guided “canopy tours” on platforms and zip lines built in the trees.

If well-designed and regulated, Carey’s facility could be a terrific asset for Lexington. Located on Old Richmond Road just off Interstate 75, the traffic impact would be far less than, say, the city’s Raven Run nature park on Jacks Creek Pike.

Most objections to the project by Carey’s opponents have been over-wrought. To hear some of them talk, allowing zip-lines in tree tops is tantamount to building a Six Flags amusement park.

During her dozen years on the Council, Martin was an outstanding advocate for rural land preservation at a time when suburban development was running amok. But her battle against Carey has looked more like an elitist “not in my back yard” campaign.

Carey made it easy for people to attack him, though, by flouting zoning processes that have served Lexington well for decades. After the Board of Adjustment turned down his request for a zoning variance, he ignored the city planning staff’s advice and proceeded with building a smaller canopy-tour course.

Carey and his lawyer, John Park, have argued that his fishing club has as much right under current zoning law to offer canopy tours as horse farms have to offer farm tours without a permit. But the Board of Adjustment rejected Carey’s appeal and is considering sanctions against him.

The battle over Boone Creek has gotten so nasty that it may well end up in court. But what is needed is a compromise that puts common sense ahead of politics and personalities. That is because Carey’s project is the right idea in the right place at the right time.

Boone Creek Outdoors and projects like it could show people the enormous potential of developing the Kentucky River Palisades corridor as an environmental education and outdoor recreation area. Under the work group’s recommendations, it could be allowed.

Low-impact outdoor recreation opportunities along the Kentucky River could become a big economic engine for Lexington. They also could generate the kind of money needed to protect the Palisades from harmful development and the invasive plant species that are rapidly destroying its fragile ecology.

Besides, unless the Boone Creek fiasco is resolved in a way that removes the perception of politics, it will be hard to make progress on these broader issues of rural land management that are essential for Lexington’s future.


Days numbered for Lexington’s gaudy, roadside ‘feather’ signs

February 25, 2013


 Feather signs along North New Circle Road. Photo by Tom Eblen

The days are numbered for those gaudy banners that have been sprouting up like dandelions along Lexington’s major commercial roads.

The Division of Planning has begun a crackdown against those so-called feather signs, which like many of the temporary signs that litter Lexington roadways, are illegal under city ordinance.

Zoning enforcement is first focusing on New Circle Road, between Georgetown and Richmond roads, where the signs seem to be thickest, said Chris King, the planning division’s director. Letters went out earlier this month to property owners, followed by site visits last week.

Properties where the signs remain up after March 18 will be subject to civil citations and fines that under the ordinance could initially be as high as $200 a day. King said enforcement officers also would be going after other types of illegal signs and in other parts of town. In addition to creating “visual blight in the community,” King said, illegal signs can distract drivers and put businesses that obey the law at a competitive disadvantage.

“There has just been an explosion of those things,” King said. “We want to send a message to other businesses, too, that in case you were thinking about it, don’t waste your money.”

Best time in a long time to guide Lexington’s growth

May 11, 2011

Lexington leaders have taken a significant first step in the latest round of planning for growth and prosperity. Now, it is time for them and everyone else to get involved in taking the next steps.

The mayor, most Urban County Council and Planning Commission members and representatives of the Home Builders Association and Commerce Lexington announced April 26 that they all agreed there is no need to expand the Urban Services Boundary in the foreseeable future.

That was a big step because it eliminated a divisive issue that has dominated previous updates of Lexington’s comprehensive land-use plan. Who can forget the bumper-sticker war of the 1990s: “Growth is Good” vs. “Growth Destroys Bluegrass Forever.” With the process no longer framed by a false choice of extremes, Lexington can now deal with the more complex reality.

A lot else has changed since the last plan update in 2006. The economy, housing market and lending environment are in serious slumps. We also know more than we did five years ago about the larger issues shaping Lexington’s future. And there is more expertise on these issues in the mayor’s office and council chambers than Lexington has ever seen before.

Officials say there are 6,700 vacant acres available for development inside the Urban Services Boundary, and perhaps an additional 6,000 acres suitable for redevelopment. “We have to be very sophisticated about how we use this land,” said Knox van Nagell, executive director of the Fayette Alliance, a group started in 2006 to promote good land use and rural preservation.

Two city task forces focusing on “infill and re development” and downtown “design excellence” have been working on proposed changes to those rules, and their chairmen say priorities are being set and recommendations will be made later this year.

Planners and developers also have better information to work with, thanks to a housing market study the city commissioned in 2008. It showed how development needs for the next two decades, when Lexington is expected to add an additional 50,000 residents, will be much different than in the past few decades.

Demand for the kind of residential development that has dominated in Lexington for decades — single-family, suburban homes with yards — is diminishing, and not just because buyers looking for that kind of home can get more for their money in surrounding counties.

Many aging baby boomers and their children want high-quality density: in-town, mixed-use neighborhoods where they can go places by walking or biking and not just driving a car.

The study also noted a serious shortage of affordable housing, which will become a bigger issue as global demand pushes gasoline prices higher. BUILD, a coalition of Lexington churches, has proposed creating a trust fund to help developers build affordable housing, a strategy effective in other cities. But city officials have been cool to the tax increase BUILD suggested, and other ways to raise several million dollars to start the fund haven’t been found.

There are other good ideas out there, too. The Fayette Alliance wants the city to create a land bank and vacant land commission — such as Louisville has — to streamline the process of private redevelopment of vacant and blighted land.

Ken Silvestri, a real estate broker whose recent deals include Southland Christian Church’s acquisition of the blighted former Lexington Mall site, has a few ideas, too.

He would like the city to assemble a database of land available for redevelopment, along with information about ownership and zoning. More analysis should be done about the “highest and best use” of available sites. And a more streamlined process for permits and approvals would make Lexington more attractive to developers and companies looking to bring jobs here, he said.

But just as the old bumper-sticker war presented a false set of extreme choices, Silvestri thinks Lexington can both encourage development and maintain high standards.

“When you set out to do things right, to do things that are first-class and sustainable, it’s always a better model,” he said.