Lexington’s city planners have recommended that the Urban Services Boundary not be expanded for at least another five years, and that future growth be handled for now with more infill and redevelopment.
“Let’s just say that out loud,” city planning director Jim Duncan told the Planning Commission on Thursday as it began work on the 2018 five-year update of Fayette County’s comprehensive land-use plan. “We’re bringing you lots and lots of alternatives for us to grow without expanding the Urban Services Boundary.”
That was good advice, and the Planning Commission and Urban County Council should take it. But it won’t happen without a fight.
After Duncan and his staff made their presentation, three Planning Commission members — builder Mike Cravens, real estate broker Karen Mundy and real estate appraiser William Berkley — were quick to object. That was no surprise.
Realtors and builders are agitating for more land to develop. They cite a new housing study, claiming that it proves more land is needed for development. That is debatable. Besides, future housing demand estimates should be only one factor Lexington leaders consider in planning for growth.
As Planning Commission member Frank Penn, a farmer, wisely pointed out, the goal of city planning is not to create profits for builders, developers and real estate agents, but to create a vibrant, prosperous city where people want to live. He noted that is exactly what has been happening in Lexington over the past decade since city officials began focusing hard on infill and redevelopment.
Lexington created the Urban Services Boundary in 1958 to keep Fayette County’s unique farmland from being gobbled up by sprawl. Without the boundary, that is exactly what would have happened. The boundary has been expanded several times. The last was in 1996 with the addition of 5,400 acres, including the Hamburg area.
Planners pointed out Thursday that there are still 5,600 acres — 10 percent of everything inside the Urban Services Boundary — undeveloped, and 35 percent of it is in parcels of 100 acres or more.
In addition to their recommendation Thursday, city planners offered several good ideas for accommodating future growth and improving Lexington’s quality of life. The Planning Commission and the Urban County Council, which makes the final decision, should give them strong consideration.
One important idea is to look deeper into why those 5,600 acres within the Urban Services Boundary are not being developed, assuming the demand is as great as builders and Realtors claim. This is especially relevant because of pressure from within the business community to open more rural land for job-creating industry.
One problem is that much of the Fayette County land already earmarked for future industrial development is owned by a handful of investors who can afford to sit on it while it rises in value. That raises the specter that if more rural land is opened for development, this “patient capital” will just buy it, too.
The planning staff suggested that city officials explore the idea of “publicly controlled” business parks. These could be built out according to Lexington’s economic development needs rather than real estate speculators’ investment goals.
The planners also called for doubling down on infill and redevelopment by encouraging, and in some cases requiring, more density in new projects. That could be done by changing zoning and parking requirements to make more efficient use of land.
One idea with promise is to encourage more dense development along the city’s major corridors, along with increased public transportation in those areas. (This also could help with the city’s shortage of “affordable” housing by making car ownership less essential for some people.)
Other staff suggestions include speeding up the development process by fixing “regulatory inefficiencies”; creating design guidelines to make sure infill development is compatible with existing neighborhoods; and requiring new development to be pedestrian-friendly.
As this process plays out over the next few months, here are a couple of things to keep in mind:
The first thing is that Lexington’s focus on infill is working, and the city has only begun to tap the potential for redeveloping underused land.
The second and most important thing is that every acre of rural Fayette County land that is developed is one less acre of the beautiful Bluegrass available to future generations.
These are forever decisions, and I will need to hear a much more compelling case for expansion than I have heard so far.
Have your say
In developing their recommendations, city planners received nearly 10,000 comments from the public. You can comment by sending an email to: email@example.com. Also, the Planning Commission will have a public hearing Aug. 31 before sending its recommendations on to the Urban County Council. That hearing is now scheduled for 1:30 p.m. in the Phoenix Building, 101 E. Vine St.