Ky. Voices: Even popular development plans not above the law

March 24, 2013 

Knox van Nagell is executive director of The Fayette Alliance, a land-use advocacy organization.

We talk a lot about what's special, authentic and unique about Lexington.

Whether it's going to the races at Keene-land or a University of Kentucky basketball game, strolling through our historic neighborhoods, enjoying Thursday Night Live downtown or experiencing one of our iconic Bluegrass farms —we have a lot of good things going on here. And it's no accident.

Why are we different? Like so many cities in America, we were born from the western frontier, its plentiful water and rich land. And yet, unlike so many of our counterparts, we have not completely forsaken that birthright under the guise of quick profit, fast growth and progress — whatever that means.

The answer is simple and yet complex at the same time. Lexington is all about balance. It's what we're known for.

Physically, we are one of the few vibrant cities surrounded by productive and robust farmland. No other place in our region or maybe the country has such a tangible interplay between an urban and rural area. Atlanta? Nashville? Louisville? Cincinnati? Indianapolis? They don't compare, and the list goes on and on.

By leveraging our built and natural environments, we've created a special place to call home and also do business. Like our landscape, our economy is balanced and diverse — rooted in health care, high-tech and agriculture; pillar industries that enabled us to weather the recent economic recession better than most.

Why is all of this relevant? Because the recent debate about Burgess Carey's proposed canopy tour is troubling.

At this juncture, the issue is not whether you're for it or against it; whether it's good for the environment or not; or whether it's a cool idea. There is a time and place for those discussions, specifically if and when new law is drafted allowing such a use in the future.

Today, the fundamental issue is whether city hall will remain committed to enforcing the zoning ordinances and processes that have served Lexington so well for decades.

This is not to say we don't have our fair share of challenges to overcome. We do. But if you look at our track record, we have avoided catastrophic booms and busts because of our commitment to balance and, more importantly, planning.

As noted in a recent University of Kentucky economics study, "Fayette County's brand is analogous to a stock of capital that was acquired over a long period and now yields returns without diminishing endowment."

Discussion, analysis and land-use planning balance seemingly competing interests to advance the public good or collective brand of our community. Through constraint comes innovation.

Whether you live in the suburbs, the urban core or on a farm, planning and zoning is a legal framework that touches all of us in innumerable and advantageous ways — from public safety and environmental protection to real estate values, quality of life and the economy.

The zoning ordinance and its processes are the foundation of what makes Lexington, Lexington. They are the ties that bind and benefit us. If you disagree, visit a community without strong planning and zoning and see the result. It isn't pretty.

According to the recent city investigation, Carey is moving forward with a development project for which he may not have permits or zoning authority. Appropriate governmental approvals and court rulings must be secured before construction begins, no matter how popular the canopy tour may be.

To ignore this process compromises the integrity of planning and zoning in Fayette County, sets a dangerous legal precedent that elevates Carey's opinions and short-term gains over the long-term impacts and considerations of our community and courts. In other words, he's acting above the law — and where is the balance in that?

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