Tuesday, the Lexington/Fayette Urban County Council will hear hours of testimony before voting on a proposed development on 90 acres on Squires Road that borders one of the reservoirs that assure our city has drinking water.
On the surface it appears as a classic conflict between a developer — Ball Homes — and the surrounding neighbors who don’t want to trade a huge, wooded tract, home to birds, deer and other wildlife, for the headaches that come with a thousand new people.
But it’s a bit more complicated than that.
The council’s decision will signal its commitment to the really tough work of creating a dense, livable urban community that includes clean water, safe roads and inviting pathways to commute and explore without an automobile.
As almost everyone — including most of the neighbors — agrees, developing that 90-acre peninsula is essential to serving our city’s growing population, while protecting the farmland that surrounds us.
But the proposal as it now stands will further degrade the water in that reservoir, eliminate a vital link in a long-planned pathway around the reservoir, and add too much traffic to Squires Road, which is already congested during commuting hours.
The council should trim the development’s proposal to build almost twice as many housing units per acre as exist in surrounding neighborhoods, stick to the city’s plan for a trail that follows the waterfront, and insist on an adequate buffer zone along the shoreline to protect the water from harmful pollutants.
Let’s take traffic first. The proposed development sits in an area bounded by Richmond Road, Man o’ War Boulevard and Alumni Drive. Many streets end in cul-de-sacs that feed only onto Squires Road. Squires runs between Alumni and Richmond and so also serves as a pass-through between those two major arteries.
To this mix, Ball Homes proposes to add the traffic from 308 apartments, 31 townhouses and 156 houses. A public middle school is also proposed on the property, so another wave of traffic, including buses, would land on Squires during drop-off and pick-up hours.
This density will create a traffic mess that will sooner or later involve a huge public investment to relieve the pressure and, in the meantime endanger and inconvenience those who live in the area.
Also disturbing is Ball Homes’ blithe plan to ignore long-term plans for a public pathway along the waterfront to connect walkers and cyclists with Jacobson Park across Richmond Road and on to Squires Road all the way to Armstrong Mill. Instead, the developer’s link to the pathway system is a widened sidewalk running along the apartments in the front of the development, far away from the waterfront.
On the greenways web page, the city says “public trails are designed to connect people to each other and key places like parks, schools, or shopping areas. They are great for strolls and wildlife watching.” It’s a wonderful vision, one southeast Lexington deserves as much as the Distillery District and downtown deserve the Town Branch Trail and the planned Commons, and north Lexington does the Legacy Trail. Southeast Lexington won’t get that if the council accepts an ordinary sidewalk as a substitute for a waterfront pathway.
The ribbon of land that the council should set aside for the trail would also provide additional buffer between suburban lawns and the reservoir. The various pesticides and fertilizers commonly used on lawns in Lexington degrade water, Daniel Potter, a research professor at the University of Kentucky who specializes in this area, told the Planning Commission.
The Ball Homes plan calls for 75 feet of buffer, although 100 feet is generally recommended. But in reality the buffer would often be less than 75 feet because it won’t be fenced off, allowing homeowners to extend their lawns to the water.
Potter, who has studied these issues for 38 years, said that when hard rains hit this sloping soil, compacted by construction, chemicals dangerous to both humans and wildlife will wash into the water. Kentucky American Water, which owns the land and the reservoir, cut back on its use after a 2013 study found the water compromised by pollution.
More than 750 citizens contacted the Planning Commission in opposition to this proposal while no one from the public spoke for it. Despite this and the serious issues raised, the commissioners ignored their responsibility to actually plan for Lexington’s future, making vague remarks about progress and how hard their job is.
The council should, and must, do better.