If the Urban County Council does the right thing next month, people will again be able to ride zip lines across Boone Creek gorge after five years of controversy, lawsuits and changes in Lexington’s zoning law.
The Council meets Jan. 19 to hear from the public and vote. It should second the city planning commission’s unanimous decision to rezone the 40-acre Boone Creek Outdoors facility and allow owner Burgess Carey to reopen his tree-top canopy tour.
While some of Carey’s neighbors are continuing their fight, enough is enough. People on all sides of this dispute have made mistakes, but the process has worked.
Allowing Boone Creek Outdoors to reopen is simply the right thing to do: for Carey, for the community, for the local economy and, most of all, for the long-term preservation of the Palisades, a unique and endangered landscape that is one of Central Kentucky’s most under-appreciated assets.
The Palisades are a rugged strip of land along the Kentucky River and its tributaries between Boonesboro and Frankfort. The area is distinguished by scenic gorges, limestone cliffs, rare plants and an abundance of wildlife — all within a short distance of Central Kentucky’s largest population centers.
The Palisades include the southeast tip of Fayette County, which has the region’s strictest land-use regulations. But that wasn’t the case before the 1960s.
When Carey bought the first piece of his property there in 1994, it had been a truck stop. He spent thousands of dollars cleaning up environmental problems caused by leaking fuel tanks. With city permission, he then opened a private fishing club.
But when Carey tried to start building his canopy tour in 2011, some neighbors objected, and city officials decided he was exceeding the scope of his conditional use permit. Carey challenged that decision in court, built his canopy tour anyway and opened for business. The court ruled against him in 2013, and the city shut him down.
Carey should not have forged ahead. But the city’s response wasn’t great, either. A slow-moving task force to study the issues was dominated by influential farming interests. Its members were openly hostile to Carey, virtually cutting him out of the process.
The task force’s stated goal was to find ways to open agricultural land along the Palisades — most of which is unsuitable for agriculture — for public recreation and tourism. That access is limited now to the city’s Raven Run park, Clark County’s Lower Howard’s Creek preserve and a few nonprofit nature sanctuaries. Most for-profit outdoor recreation businesses have been prohibited in rural Fayette County.
When the task force finally made its recommendations, they were so restrictive that the planning commission rebelled. Its members responded by approving zoning law changes that the city’s planning staff thought were too lenient.
In July, the Council wisely approved a good compromise. That paved the way for the planning commission to recommend Oct. 27 that Carey’s canopy tour be allowed to reopen. The council must now approve that recommendation.
I took Carey’s canopy tour several years ago, and it was a blast. I often hike along the Palisades, but Boone Creek Outdoors’ zip lines, platforms and swinging bridges provided a new and thrilling perspective on this natural treasure.
I was impressed by the design and construction of Carey’s facilities. Great care was taken to not damage old trees, ruin the viewshed or otherwise hurt the environment. Since then, Carey has gained more experience building and operating a canopy tour at Pine Mountain State Park.
Boone Creek Outdoors’ location is excellent. While in the gorge, you feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere. In reality, you are just over the hill from an Interstate 75 interchange. That means great access and few traffic problems.
Carey’s opponents say they oppose his business because they want to protect this fragile landscape, and I think they mean well. Some of these landowners have spent a lot of their own money fighting invasive species including bush honeysuckle and winter creeper, which have become a huge problem along the Palisades.
But trusting that Palisades land will always be owned by wealthy, conservation-minded people is not good public policy. Well-regulated, low-impact adventure tourism could provide an important source of revenue, both for conservation and for local economic development.
Most importantly, though, a well-regulated adventure tourism industry along the Kentucky River Palisades will introduce more people to this special landscape, which could easily be ruined by insensitive development.
People protect what they love. The more people get to experience the Palisades, the more they will come to love it — and insist that policy-makers protect it for future generations.