In the latest in a series of interviews about the 2018 updating of Lexington’s five-year Comprehensive Plan, Tom Martin talks with Susan Speckert, Executive Director of the Fayette Alliance, a citizens organization that advocates sustainable growth.
Click here to hear the audio version of the interview: http://bit.ly/2jFUpyf
Q: As the updating of our Comprehensive Plan nears, let’s look at the one now in place. What of significance, in your view, was done in 2013?
Never miss a local story.
A: The 2013 plan was a massive rewrite of all previous Comprehensive Plans. The mayor and our city council and stakeholders showed tremendous leadership and took expansion of the Urban Services Boundary off the table. What resulted was a robust rewrite, embracing what has been our long-term growth strategy in Fayette County. Since the Urban Services Boundary was created in 1958, we really are an “infill and redevelopment” community. What the 2013 plan did was to articulate how to put strategies in place to do infill and redevelopment. While the plan articulated this vision, what we don’t have is a nuts-and-bolts, detailed, comprehensive, long-term growth strategy. So, what the Fayette Alliance is interested in doing is coming up with long-term growth strategies that leverage our assets and drive investment inside our city limits to improve what we’ve already built.
Q: What does the idea of infill imply with regard to density within the Urban Services Boundary?
A: It implies increased density, and planning for that in a smart way is what’s really important. We need to do the hard work that we haven’t done and create a strategy that analyzes all of our vacant land, as well as our underutilized land. Density creates an incredible amount of opportunity. People are interested in neighborhoods where you can walk to amenities and restaurants and have multimodal forms of transportation available. Those things require density. If you think of communities that have experienced significant sprawl, what you find is that your city center and neighborhoods become abandoned and they’re not vibrant. So, by focusing that investment and keeping that energy inside our city limits, that’s how you create a vibrant city.
Q: As an update to the Comprehensive Plan is considered, what issues are important to the Fayette Alliance?
A: We believe that the data and the facts show that we have plenty of room to accommodate our projected future growth. So, we believe that in order to continue to grow our city and harness this incredible energy that we’re seeing, we need to maintain the Urban Services Boundary. This is particularly true if you consider what our greatest needs are in terms of our future population growth. Like the rest of the nation, we have an aging population. The highest percentage population growth that we’re going to see in the next 10-20 years and beyond is in seniors. So, what all of the data and literature say about senior housing is that we need an increased stock of low-maintenance housing where seniors can maintain their independence as they age, in areas where they’re well-connected to services and amenities and not necessarily dependent on cars. We think we have enough room to grow and maintaining that Urban Services Boundary is really critically important. The other thing is the need for this long-term comprehensive growth strategy.
Q: It’s been said that Baby Boomers are hitting 65 at the rate of 1 every 7 seconds. How well prepared for this is Lexington?
A: There’s a great study by Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies that finds that one out of every three American households will be headed by someone 65 or older by 2035. That’s a significant shift. The study suggests that we have an opportunity now to be intentional about how we plan for the housing needs of our seniors. The second age group that we are projected to see the largest growth in over the next 20 years are 20-to-29-year-olds. Currently, 10 percent of our population in Fayette County are UK undergrads. That percentage is expected to grow. We know, based on information from the National Association of Realtors, that the average age of a first-time homebuyer is about 32 to 34 years old. So, these 20-somethings are almost exclusively renters and it’s so important that we have plenty of rental stock available to keep our young people here and in areas that are inside our city where they’re able to walk to school and work and not be dependent on a car.
Q: Traffic seems to have increased in recent years. Does this indicate accelerated growth in population?
A: We’ve been growing at about the same rate consistently and that’s welcoming about another 20,000 people every five years. So yes, we are a growing community. There’s no question about that. The traffic issue affects all of us. It’s a very car-dependent culture. One way to address that is through density. For a mass transit system to sustain itself, you’ve got to have bodies on the bus or whatever the mode of transportation is. So, until we have that density, it’s going to be a struggle to create a comprehensive mass transit system. I think there’s a great opportunity in this Comprehensive Plan for us to tackle the traffic and transportation issue.
Q: What are some of the risks of infill? Is there a danger of driving up housing prices?
A: The affordable housing issue is one that the Fayette Alliance is tackling head on. We were very proud to recently sign a resolution with a number of other community leaders and organizations asking the city to increase the annual funding to the Affordable Housing Trust Fund. Lexington, under the mayor’s leadership, has really gotten serious about it. The challenge is to understand that expansion will not increase the inventory of affordable housing. The best way to understand that is to look at what happened the last time we expanded. That was in 1996 and there were approximately 5,000 acres brought in that were designated residential. A plan that was put in place, called the Expansion Area Master Plan, offered incentives to developers to build affordable housing and they did not take advantage of those incentives. Not one affordable home was built. Developers who do affordable housing will tell you that the way that they’re able to do that is by qualifying for a federal tax incentive. And among the many qualifications for that is a requirement that affordable housing be located in areas where there’s existing infrastructure and it’s close to jobs and other amenities and needs. So, this idea of pushing people out to the perimeter, particularly for affordable housing, is not a strategy that is sustainable.
Q: Another major dynamic that plays into all of this thinking and planning is the EPA Consent Decree, which brings with it a Capacity Assurance Program. What are the implications for planning within the Urban Services Boundary?
A: You’ve hit on a central critical issue. In 2006, we entered into a Consent Decree with the Environmental Protection Agency to fix our dilapidated and overstressed sewers. The Consent Decree was originally estimated to cost $300 million. It’s now estimated to cost approximately $600 million over the next decade and you and I pay for that every month in our sewer bills. We got into the mess by adding capacity to the system without improving the infrastructure. So expanding into areas where there is no infrastructure is extremely expensive. All of the pump lines or trunk lines and pump stations have to be built along with other things like roads. You have to have police and fire. It’s very expensive. The $600 million price tag does not include an expansion. So, it is possible that if there was an expansion that that would increase the amount of that price tag. That also is part of the reason that adding land would not increase the inventory of affordable homes because you simply couldn’t build what would be considered “an affordable home” in an expansion area. It’s just too expensive to build out there.
Q: If only one thing could be achieved in updating the Comprehensive Plan, what would you and your organization want that to be?
A: Well, we would like to see this long-term comprehensive infill and redevelopment strategy figured out, and adopted, and implemented. And part of that would include not expanding the Urban Services Boundary.
Tom Martin’s Q&A appears every two weeks in the Herald-Leader’s Business Monday section. This is an edited version of the interview. To listen to the interview, find the podcast on Kentucky.com. The interview also will air on WEKU-88.9 FM on Mondays at 7:35 a.m. during Morning Edition and at 5:45 p.m. during All Things Considered.