A tightly managed, three-year effort to expand public recreation and tourism opportunities in rural Fayette County started coming unwound Thursday as the Planning Commission prepared to vote on it.
Several commission members expressed concern that the proposed zoning ordinance text amendment, or ZOTA, which they and the Urban County Council must approve, would be too restrictive.
They started offering amendments, then put off the matter for more discussion until May 21 and a possible vote May 28. The delay was wise, because these complex zoning decisions have implications far beyond recreation.
The challenge with the ZOTA is striking the right balance of private property rights, public access and the long-term preservation of horse farms, other agriculture and an environmentally sensitive landscape that the World Monuments Fund has recognized as one of the most special and endangered places on earth.
It is important to note that the ZOTA wouldn't change rules about what property owners can do on their land for their own enjoyment. It affects only new public recreation and tourism-related land uses, both commercial and non-profit.
Part of the problem with the ZOTA process has been that it grew out of a nasty dispute between Burgess Carey and some of his neighbors in the Boone Creek area off old Richmond Road.
Carey has a permit to operate a private fishing club on his property in Boone Creek Gorge. But he expanded it into a public canopy tour business, in which people toured the gorge from treetop platforms using zip lines and suspension bridges.
Neighbors opposed the business, and city officials shut it down.
Carey's aggressiveness antagonized officials and made it easy for opponents to brand him an outlaw rather than debate the merits of having a canopy tour business on Boone Creek. That's a shame, because it is a well-designed, well-located facility that the public should be able to enjoy.
The Boone Creek dispute prompted the ZOTA process and made it contentious from the beginning. One result was that the city task force created to study the issue wasn't as open as it should have been to public participation and diverse viewpoints. Hence, last week's Planning Commission fireworks.
Suburban sprawl is incompatible with animal agriculture, especially high-strung racehorses. Development takes the Inner Bluegrass region's valuable agricultural soils out of production.
That is why Lexington in 1958 became the first U.S. city to create an urban growth boundary. Without it and other rural land-use restrictions, horses and farms could have been crowded out of Fayette County years ago.
Farmers are understandably concerned about any nearby commercial development. But some other people think it is unfair for traditional agriculture to have a monopoly on rural land use.
The balancing act gets even more complicated in the environmentally sensitive and ruggedly beautiful land along the Kentucky River Palisades. It is an ideal place for low-impact outdoor recreation and environmental education. But most public access is restricted to the city's Raven Run Nature Sanctuary.
Preserving these natural areas is complicated, because they need constant care to check the spread of invasive plant species, especially bush honeysuckle and wintercreeper euonymus, which choke out native vegetation. It is a huge problem.
Much of the land along the river is owned by people dedicated to its care and preservation. Many spend a lot of money and effort fighting invasive species.
But, as a matter of public policy, it is risky for Lexington to count on landowners' wealth and good intentions forever. It makes sense to give them some business opportunities to help pay for conservation, especially since much of this land is not suitable for traditional agriculture.
Most Fayette County rural land is zoned "agriculture rural." The ZOTA proposal would create a new "agriculture natural" zoning option along the river with some different permitted uses.
Much of the debate about the ZOTA's treatment of both zones is about what land uses should be "primary" by right and which should be "conditional," requiring approval by the city Board of Adjustment. The conditional-use process allows for more site-specific regulation, but it can be cumbersome for landowners.
Carey's lawyer, John Park, who lives on adjacent property along Boone Creek, points out that poor farming practices in that area can be more environmentally destructive than some commercial and recreational uses. But state law gives farmers a lot of freedom from local zoning regulations.
One criticism of the ZOTA proposal — and other parts of Lexington's zoning code, as well — is that in trying to regulate every conceivable land use to keep "bad" things from happening, the rules aren't flexible enough to allow "good" things to happen.
These are complicated issues with a lot of good people and good points of view on all sides. More frank and open discussion is needed to reach something close to a community consensus.
Increasing public access to rural recreation and tourism is important, both for Lexington's economy and quality of life. But it also is necessary for preservation.
People protect what they love. Finding more ways for people to connect with this irreplaceable landscape and agrarian-equine culture will nurture that love.