Business

What do we want our community to look like when we’re done developing?

Downtown Lexington
Downtown Lexington

Lexington is updating its five-year comprehensive plan. Mandated by state law, the plan serves as a guideline for the city’s management of growth and development. The update is due to be completed in 2018.

Vice Mayor Steve Kay talks about the issues being addressed in the process.

Q: Do you think an update of the city’s five-year comprehensive plan is needed?

A: It’s always a good idea to take a look and to see if the present conditions really reflect what we were thinking five years ago or sometimes 10 or 15 years ago.

Q: The comprehensive plan focuses primarily on growth and development. Among stakeholders we’ve spoken to there is consistent emphasis on infill and redevelopment. What are your thoughts on that?

A: I would agree. One of the things that I’ve done since I’ve been on council has been to chair the Infill and Redevelopment Committee which has been looking at ways to make infill and redevelopment more attractive. It’s harder to do redevelopment than taking a piece of land that’s basically open and just putting up a bunch of houses or whatever.

Infill has these complexities and difficulties. We’ve been working for a long time to make sure that regulations, as much as possible, make infill as easy as possible to do. But, when you’re improving neighborhoods the question is, as you’re improving are you having a negative impact on the people who are already living there? Are we forcing out people from low-income housing? If so, is there a way that we can moderate that?

Q: Housing affordability. There are concerns that Lexington might go the way of a Boulder, Colo., which has basically priced itself out of its own market.

A: Right.

Q: Do you see that potential here?

A: By a lot of standards, housing in Lexington generally remains affordable, relative to other communities like us. But, there’s also a very specific definition that Housing Urban Development uses that has to do with the ability of people who are making a certain level of income to actually afford housing.

Affordable housing in the HUD sense means that you’re not paying more than 30 percent of your income to actually provide housing. And we have a lot of people in Lexington who are well above that, and that’s a part of that issue.

Q: Infill and redevelopment also implies greater density within a given area.

A: Yes.

Q: Is Lexington ready for that?

A: Well, ready or not, here it comes. In certain ways we are, and in certain ways we are not. But, one of the truths about increased density is that it almost inevitably has a negative impact, whether perceived or real, on the people who are adjacent to that development. So, if it means more height, it means you have less view. If it means more units, you have more traffic.

We’re in a situation where we need to do infill and redevelopment. I believe that we need to be very serious about it. But it’s really important that we educate the community that we’re looking at the broader question: how do we accommodate the people who want to live here in a way that makes sense?

Q: And what we’re talking about now is territory that is contained within the Urban Services Boundary.

A: Right.

Q: The reason that there is a compelling interest in maintaining the status quo has to do with preservation of the green space outside of that boundary, correct?

A: Right.

Q: Does that remain an imperative?

A: I think it does. I think most people understand that what we have here in this community is the open land, the green space. Three-quarters of our county is now in open land and farmland. For a city the size of Lexington to have that much green space immediately adjacent is very unusual and it’s what defines us as the Horse Capital of the World — that’s where the horse farms are. We do not have mountains. We don’t have oceans. We have a river, but it’s at the edge of the county. What makes Lexington so appealing to people is the beauty of that land.

So, in almost all of the work that we do in terms of gauging community sentiment, it’s very clear that a significant majority of the community understands how important it is to preserve that land.

Q: There is talk of a strategic expansion of the Urban Services Boundary. Are you familiar with that point of view and what are your thoughts?

A: I think that’s an interesting concept and what I understand about it is that there may be some specific places where there is land outside that Urban Service Boundary that could be developed in such a way that it does not have a negative impact on the farming that goes on adjacent to it, on the view shed, on the overall perspective of, again, what we want to look like when we’re all done developing.

I’m not saying there is not a single parcel of land that should ever be developed outside of the Urban Service Boundary, but I think if we’re going to do it at all, we have to do it very carefully. We have to understand that the land is finite.

Q: A tool of land preservation has been the purchase of development rights from landowners to ensure that those lands are not developed. We’ve spent a good amount of money doing that. Do you see that continuing?

A: Well, right now we are on a trajectory to protect 50,000 acres. We’ve already protected roughly 30,000 acres. And yes, we need to continue to do that. And then, the larger question is what do we want our community to look like when we are done developing open land?

Land is a finite resource, you can only develop it once and once it’s developed, it’s gone. So, what do we want our community to look like when we are done developing because eventually we will have to be done: either we will have developed all the open space or we will have protected it.

This is a 40-, 60-, 80-year trajectory, but sooner or later there will be no land available for that kind of development in Fayette County. What do we want to look like when we reach that point?

Q: It seems that traffic has become more of an issue in recent years. Do we have a problem? And if we do, how might it be addressed in the plan?

A: We do have a problem. At least twice a day on the major arteries, there is congestion. And a good part of the reason that’s true is that we have continued to extend development farther and farther out from the center of town, plus people coming into town to work or going to the mall to shop, or whatever.

I think a part of the solution is really more infill and redevelopment. If we don’t want to continue to add traffic, especially to those arteries, we want people living and working and playing in the same places.

And another part of the answer is how we go from a city that has a mass transit system that is essentially just there for the people who have no other choice, to making it one where people who have choice want to be on it because it saves them time because it’s more efficient. That’s a very complicated question, not easy to resolve, but I think that’s one of the things we need to keep thinking about.

Q: Are there any points or issues that we’ve not touched on that you would like to mention?

A: I’d like to loop back to the question of how infill is impacting the community and say that it’s helpful to take a broad perspective when somebody is proposing something in your own neighborhood.

We need to be very thoughtful about the way in which we handle growth in the next five,10, 15, 20 years. I believe we want to preserve the rural land that we have, and we want to do development in such a way that makes sense, given how attractive this community is.

There’s no easy answer. But I would hope that people will understand that what we’re trying to do is work through and provide some balance.

You don’t always get what you want; you don’t get all of what you want; you may not get exactly what you want. With 4,000 people a year moving into Lexington, how do we accommodate that in a way that does not compromise our overall quality of life?

Tom Martin’s Q&A appears every two weeks in the Herald-Leader’s Business Monday section. This is an edited version of the interview. To listen to the interview, find the podcast on Kentucky.com. The interview also will air on WEKU-88.9 FM on Mondays at 7:35 a.m. during Morning Edition and at 5:45 p.m. during All Things Considered.

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