The Planning Commission did the right thing last week in voting to hold the line on expanding Lexington-Fayette County’s urban area, and the Urban County Council should follow suit when it acts on the commission’s recommendations this fall.
The debate over expansion is often, wrongly and on both sides, characterized as a growth/no-growth issue.
Dynamic, vital communities are always growing and changing, but that growth doesn’t have to be fueled by consuming rural acreage. Expanding into farmland, on the other hand, does not always mean a net gain for an area, either economically or demographically.
What Lexington’s planning staff, which recommended holding the line on expansion, and now the commission itself see is a path toward greater prosperity through the hard work of developing and redeveloping within the existing urban area.
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This means struggling with many complex issues. They include: protecting the quality of life in existing neighborhoods when new developments occur on their edges; assuring there’s affordable housing for all levels of workers and seniors; developing transportation systems and alternatives to relieve traffic pressure; targeting high quality job creation that fits within our existing footprint.
The arguments against expanding are often couched in terms of protecting the unique and defining Bluegrass farmland that surrounds the urban core. That rural landscape, though, is more than a beautiful weekend amenity for urban dwellers.
A recent study by the University of Kentucky found that agriculture and the businesses that support it in Fayette County account for $2.3 billion in annual output and account for one in 12 jobs in the county that combined contribute $8.5 million through payroll taxes.
It supports more than just the Thoroughbred industry that brings visitors and investment from across the world. Farms in Fayette County produce a wide range of other agriculture products and many contribute to the lively local food scene.
In addition, any expansion would mean extending stormwater and sewer services into new areas while the county is still hard at work on a $590 million overhaul to bring those services up to date in the existing urban area.
For those who don’t remember, before the community reached a consent agreement with the Environmental Protection Agency in 2012 for this work, every large rainfall brought with it the threat of sewer overflows, sewage flooding basements and dangerous flood conditions in many parts of the community.
The council, which must pass a budget for the Urban County Government, each year can never lose sight of the infrastructure costs that come with expansion.