Some of Lexington’s greatest assets are its open space and horse farms that make us special and envied all over the world. We cannot allow these precious gifts to be lost or gobbled up for development. But how can that be prevented?
In 1958, Lexington created the nation's first urban services area, restricting new development by setting strict limits on land development to preserve open space for agricultural and horse farms, the defining characteristics of the Bluegrass region.
Every five years, Lexington revisits its Comprehensive Plan, which provides the blueprint for how and where our community grows. And every five years there is extreme pressure from developers to expand this development zone. For the most part, the government has steadfastly resisted expansion despite claims that there is not enough developable land and that by not expanding, land prices will rise to unaffordable levels.
But here’s the thing: We never need to expand the urban services area.
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Just think of the advantages of resisting expansion forever. Lexington is already as close to a perfect city anywhere with an extraordinarily low cost of living. Most houses would cost double in other cities. Our traffic congestion is not yet unbearable.
So why do we want to allow more growth? Some say for economic reasons. But without residential growth, we would reduce pressure on our already-stressed sewer system or to build new schools and roads. While population growth has been beneficial in the past, we are at a tipping point where more growth would surely be detrimental.
Each year, property taxes increase because of growth but Lexington’s real income is from payroll taxes. So we should grow businesses without population growth.
If we refuse to expand the urban services area, newcomers will buy in surrounding counties where home developers and their suppliers will thrive because of the lower property taxes and cost of land. At the same time, by being business friendly, Lexington can provide jobs for people in surrounding counties, building high rises for new businesses within the urban area without utilizing much land. Home prices in Lexington would rise but that would be the very incentive to encourage growth in surrounding counties.
There is, however, a problem. Rush-hour traffic coming into and out of Lexington could become unbearable. For example, Harrodsburg Road traffic backs up over a mile at the Man o’ War intersection during rush hour. But even this problem has answers.
Some cities are looking at light rail as an alternative, but there may be an even better, less expensive answer. Buses could leave parking centers in surrounding counties every five minutes at rush hour, transporting huge numbers of passengers in reserved lanes. It would cost commuters less than driving, at the same time preventing highway gridlock and reducing congestion. And these buses would have the flexibility of pickup and drop off at any location.
So, let’s not be bullied by development interests into trading our great standard of living and enormous treasures to accommodate newcomers, whose growth would only degrade our quality of life by increasing taxes, development costs, traffic congestion and overcrowding in general. By locking up the urban services area, newcomers would find more affordable housing in the surrounding counties and even save money commuting at rush hour.
If we continue to believe that it is our responsibility to accommodate every family that wants to live here, we will surely destroy our most precious assets and diminish Lexington’s quality of life.
There’s an old saying: If you want to save something, just don’t give it away.
Marty Solomon, a retired University of Kentucky professor, can be reached at email@example.com.
Related: Herald-Leader article, “Fight over growth boundary shifts to Lexington council as planners reject expansion”