Thousands of travelers cross the Clays Ferry bridge of Interstate 75 into Fayette County every day, never knowing what lies over the hill below them. Most Lexingtonians don't know what is there, either.
Behind an Old Richmond Road building that used to be the Jolly Roger truck stop, there is a steep cliff. At the bottom is Boone Creek Gorge, one of the most ruggedly beautiful and inaccessible landscapes in Central Kentucky.
Before Boone Creek flows into the Kentucky River, it passes tall limestone palisades, an ancient waterfall, giant trees and rare wildflowers. The gorge is home to trout, wild turkey, deer, mink, otter and real Kentucky wildcats. It also holds the remains of a pioneer cabin, an 1803 grist mill and a cave where, legend has it, Daniel Boone hid from Indians.
"People don't know this is here, because almost nobody ever gets to see it," said Lexington businessman Burgess Carey, who took me on a hike through the gorge. He hopes to change that.
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Carey bought more than 20 acres of the gorge in 1994 and cleaned up a mess from the former truck stop's leaking fuel tanks. In 2000, he opened a small private fishing club to help pay for the property's upkeep.
Now, Carey has bought and leased additional land between the fishing club and where Boone Creek empties into the river. He hopes to create Boone Creek Outdoors, a 167-acre recreation facility that would offer kayaking; limited camping; and trails for bird-watching, hiking and mountain biking. The main attraction would be guided, small-group "canopy tours" above the gorge using zip lines and suspension bridges.
To do that, Carey must overcome opposition from some neighbors and local organizations that think his plans violate zoning laws and could hurt the sensitive environment. After a four-hour hearing Friday, which attracted a large crowd of supporters and opponents of the project, Lexington's Board of Adjustment continued the hearing until Jan. 27.
Carey, a lifelong Lexingtonian and outdoor enthusiast, thinks Boone Creek Outdoors could attract as many as 20,000 visitors a year and seasonally employ eight to 30 workers.
The canopy tour would be an educational experience, not just a thrill ride, said Carey, who is working with some of the industry's best course designers.
The tour would showcase the gorge's beauty from above and explain the history of this section of the Kentucky River valley, site of some of the state's first pioneer settlements. "It has the potential to grow into a national-class attraction," he said.
Carey's plans call for about $2 million in capital investment. He said money would come from private financing and a $250,000 state tourism loan. The canopy tours would be key to making Boone Creek Outdoors a financially viable business.
Carey said tour revenue also would enable him to better protect and manage the gorge, and to restore land damaged by grazing cattle. The biggest threat to the environment isn't visitors, he said, but invasive plants, many introduced in the 1960s during I-75's construction.
"We'll manage it much like a ski resort: if you don't behave yourself, you can't come back," Carey said. "Are we going to have an issue with popularity? I hope so. But we can control it."
The city planning staff has recommended approval of Carey's request for a conditional use permit. Other supporters include most of the adjacent property owners, the city's environmental commission and Lexington Convention and Visitors Bureau. Tim Queary, the city's forester, told the Board of Adjustment the canopy tour course wouldn't damage trees.
The decision is up to the board of citizen volunteers. At Friday's meeting, several citizens and groups spoke against Carey's request, including the Old Richmond Road and Boone Creek neighborhood associations, Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation and the Fayette Alliance.
Opponents had concerns about environmental impact, traffic and emergency access. But perhaps the biggest concern was whether the project would set a legal precedent that could threaten the integrity of zoning throughout Fayette County. Much of that issue depends on whether Boone Creek Outdoors is legally considered an amusement park, which city law prohibits in the agricultural zone.
"I really like the idea that Burgess has," said Gloria Martin, a neighbor and former Urban County Council member. But she argued that his project is an amusement park and therefore needs a special zoning amendment for proper regulation. Her view was shared by Knox van Nagell, executive director of Fayette Alliance.
"Eco-tourism could be a great thing, but it must be done carefully," van Nagell said. She urged Carey to withdraw his application until legal issues could be resolved to ensure responsible operation of Boone Creek Outdoors and protection for rural zoning countywide.
City officials, Carey, his supporters and opponents face an important challenge. Long-term protection of Boone Creek Gorge will require money and thoughtful management. Without something like Boone Creek Outdoors, where will that money and management come from?
The challenge is to figure out how to protect this spectacular natural resource while allowing more people to enjoy it — and to influence future generations to protect and enjoy it, too.