After years of recession-induced silence, the drumbeat is sure to start again: builders, developers and land speculators will want to expand the Urban Service Boundary.
Don’t do it, Lexington, and not just for the obvious reason.
Central Kentucky’s land is unique. The World Monuments Fund recognized that fact a decade ago when it declared the 1.2 million-acre Inner Bluegrass region of Fayette, Woodford and parts of nine surrounding counties “one of America’s most distinctive landscapes.”
At the same time, the fund placed the Inner Bluegrass on its list of the world’s 100 most-endangered places. It noted that 80,000 acres of farmland and natural area had been developed in the previous decade despite this region having some of the nation’s oldest and most ambitious land-preservation efforts.
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The most significant of those efforts is Lexington’s Urban Service Boundary, created in 1958 to limit suburban sprawl and patchwork development. The boundary has played a pivotal role in preserving agriculture in Fayette County, especially the signature horse industry.
Supplementing that boundary in recent years has been the Purchase of Development Rights program, which since 2000 has permanently preserved 29,165 acres of rural Fayette County land at a cost of $37 million in city funds and $40 million in federal and state money.
No, PDR is not a sop for wealthy landowners; it is a proven economic model for preserving land, agriculture and the scenic beauty that drives Lexington’s tourism industry and contributes to residents’ quality of life.
One argument I have always heard against PDR is that the city could control development simply through zoning laws and the Urban Service Boundary. The flaw in that argument is those safeguards can disappear quickly when you have a pro-development Urban County Council majority and landowners who want to cash in. Think Hamburg. Conservation easements are forever, unlike politics and economic conditions, which can be as changeable as the weather.
When the Urban Service Boundary was created, it restricted new development to a 67-square-mile area in and around Lexington. Since then, the boundary has been expanded to include eight more square miles.
The last boundary expansion was in 1996, when an additional 5,400 acres were opened for development. The Planning Commission considered, but thankfully rejected, a plan in 2006 to add 7,500 acres of “urban reserve” for future expansion.
Protecting two-thirds of Fayette County from dense development may seem like a lot until you realize that space has to last forever. That’s the obvious reason for being hesitant to expand the boundary unless there is a compelling reason. I don’t see one now, or in the near future.
As this debate begins ahead of Lexington’s 2018 comprehensive land-use plan update, we will hear arguments from pro-expansion interests. They will say Lexington needs more space for homes and industrial sites to attract jobs and tax revenue. They will talk about how “reasonably priced” new housing is going to surrounding counties with more lax development rules. But there are better ways to create affordable housing than building more vinyl-clad boxes on farmland.
What expansion proponents won’t say is that sprawl often doesn’t pay for itself, because taxpayers must extend roads and sewer lines, build more schools and fire stations and provide services to a larger geographic area.
That issue is worth thinking about, especially since Lexington is now having to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to fix water-quality problems, many of which were created by decades of previous development without adequate infrastructure.
But here is a less-obvious reason to not expand the Urban Service Boundary: Lexington is starting to see significant successes with infill and redevelopment. Would suburban expansion take the steam out of that economic engine?
During the last half of the 20th century, Lexington, like many cities, developed a throw-away culture. Many in-town neighborhoods fell into decline as people left them for new suburbs. Then those suburbs were soon abandoned for newer, fancier ones. The trend was even more pronounced in malls and shopping centers.
Now, some of those once-neglected areas are the hottest real estate in town: Kenwick, Mentelle, Hollywood, Castlewood and other neighborhoods along North Limestone Street. Not to mention infill projects we might not be seeing if more Fayette County farmland were available for subdivisions and strip malls.
A strong Urban Service Boundary is vital to preserving Fayette County’s unique rural landscape. But it also helps nurture vibrant urban neighborhoods. Twenty years of growth limits forced Lexington to get serious about infill and redevelopment, and it is proving more popular than many people ever expected.