We need to open rural land to development

1,000 to 2,000 acres would give lexington an economic boost

March 4, 2013 

  • At issue: Jan. 29 Herald-Leader article, "Fayette County agriculture tied to 1 in 9 jobs, and $2.4 billion in revenue, study finds"

After reading the Jan. 29 article about a study of Fayette County agriculture, I acquired a copy of the report on which the article is based. The report, written by the University of Kentucky Department of Agriculture and funded by the Fayette County Kentucky Farm Bureau, was titled "The Influence of the Agricultural Cluster on the Fayette County Economy."

I am grateful for the details, some quite alarming, which were not mentioned in the article. The report is a meaningful contribution to the open and ongoing land use and zoning debate between those who seek to preserve every acre of farmland against commercial and manufacturing development and those, like me, who see commercial and manufacturing development as an economic necessity to future prosperity.

Fayette County should free up 1,000 to 2,000 acres (out of 123,700 farm acres) as sites upon which a major manufacturer might build a factory, such as Toyota did in Scott County 25 years ago.

In 2010, the median family income in Scott County was more than $10,000 a year greater than in Fayette County ($58,500 a year verses $48,300 a year.)

As much as we enjoy the beauty of Fayette County's farms, they do not contribute much to the economy; the agriculture sector comprises only about 5 percent of the county's total economic output. Retail sales, manufacturing, health care, finance, professional services and higher education comprise the bulk of Fayette County's annual economic output, in dollar terms.

The UK report concedes that because modern agriculture, including horse breeding and training, is land- and capital- intensive, not employee-intensive, the Thoroughbred industry will not be a source of future employment or payroll tax revenue growth. It would have to come from other sources.

Using a series of assumptions and employment multipliers, the report hypothesizes that the county's brand as "The Horse Capital of the World" will attract other kinds of jobs, such as those in tourism, which it cannot generate within the agricultural sector itself.

Fayette County now produces one-third less manufacturing output, compared to other counties of similar population across America, $3 billion versus $4 billion, according to the report.

This deficit is certainly aggravated by the absence of any land that could be developed for manufacturing, because 70 percent of the county's land can be used only for agricultural purposes under the current land-use plan.

An August letter from the president of Commerce Lexington to the county's planning department reveals that it cannot attract any manufacturer of significant size to locate here because of the unavailability of Urban Services Area land zoned manufacturing. There are only a few parcels in the entire county, and none in the Rural Services Area, of more than five acres that are available and zoned for manufacturing.

The report also reveals that Fayette County's sole focus on agricultural land uses is causing 40 percent higher poverty rates and an astronomical crime rate, compared to the average U.S. county with a similar population. The report also found that 20.4 percent of Fayette County's population lives below the poverty line, compared with an average rate of 14.72 percent for U.S. counties with 100,000 to 500,000 residents. And the county's crime rate is 7.6 times that of the average for counties with similar populations (1,724 per 10,000 population, versus an average of 226).

Proponents of more manufacturing do not propose to destroy Fayette County's beautiful farm landscape. The provision for 1,000 acres of land for major manufacturers could reduce the poverty and crime rates dramatically. The Toyota plant on 1,000 acres generates more economic revenue for Scott County than Fayette County's entire agricultural sector.

By providing for a small amount of land and securing high-paying manufacturing jobs, the quality of life for average Fayette County residents would improve dramatically without adversely affecting the horse breeding and racing businesses. In fact, bringing those high-paying jobs here will enhance that industry.

At issue: Jan. 29 Herald-Leader article, "Fayette County agriculture tied to 1 in 9 jobs, and $2.4 billion in revenue, study finds"

Ralph Ruschell

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