Lexington-Fayette County decided a long time ago to save our extraordinarily valuable countryside for agriculture and focus development in the city. It's called planning, and it works pretty well when everyone plays by the rules.
But for over a decade, one landowner in the rural area has flouted the rules, turning acres of rich Bluegrass farmland into a strip mine, blasting, crushing and scraping the irreplaceable soil and limestone base to be hauled away and sold.
At this point, the landowner has been assessed one $75 fine for violating a zoning ordinance, which he's appealing.
How could this go on so long with so few consequences?
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When Mayor Jim Gray took office, he created the position of planning commissioner, a cabinet-level post, to elevate the role of planning at city hall. Gray's focus, and that of commissioner Derek Paulsen, has been reviving the urban area. We applaud that work. But the political will, the muscle of this elevated emphasis must also protect farmland and enforce our planning laws.
An extremely well-documented report by the city's planning staff details over a decade of flagrant violations by Con Robinson Contracting Co. The company, operated by a man for whom it's named, owns 115 acres of farmland on Georgetown Road in an area zoned for agricultural/rural use.
In 1990, Robinson applied to the Board of Adjustment to use 22 acres for commercial composting, a use allowed only with specific permission from the board. He'd been doing it there since 1987, giving rise to litigation, but the board granted his request.
It's not exactly clear when it began, but by 2008 it was evident that Robinson had begun serious excavations, selling topsoil and crushed rock. He never sought or received a mining or quarrying permit from either the city or state. A site visit in 2008 found a moonscape. "This activity, which at times required the use of explosives, resulted in substantial changes in elevation, up to 22' reductions at some locations, and several acres of exposed bare rock where topsoil had been completely removed," according to the report presented to the Board of Adjustment on Jan 25.
Composting on the site seemed to come to a standstill after 2003. For at least three years, according to the staff, there was also a huge business salvaging or recycling building materials. It included a weighing station and about 40 large storage containers. "This type of operation is just flat-out not permitted in the A/R zone," staffer Jim Marx told the board.
Robinson applied for another conditional use permit in 2010, this time for quarrying. It was denied. Despite that, the activity continued. The report describes inspectors following trucks laden with topsoil from Robinson's property to construction sites. The staff recommended that the board revoke the conditional use permit for composting, which it did at that January meeting.
Planning staff must now consider how to reclaim or restore this devastated acreage — a complex and technical problem.
A related problem is restoring some sense of public integrity in city planning laws.
Robinson's extensive unauthorized commercial operations destroyed soil and stone that took millions of years to create, breaking laws, disrupting neighboring farms and possibly endangering a regional water supply.
The planning staff has done an excellent job documenting this outrage. Now, Paulsen and Gray must mobilize city resources and coordinate with state authorities to pursue whatever sanctions, civil and criminal, can be brought against Robinson and to assure he'll carry out the reclamation plan that's developed.
They must also figure out what combination of vigilance and sanctions it will take to make sure this doesn't happen again. If Lexington is to be the special city in a world-class landscape that Gray often describes, local government must have -- and use -- the teeth to enforce the plans we've made over decades to preserve this unique place.