City's planning director is retiring after 43 years of helping manage Lexington's growth

Lexington Planning Director Chris King is retiring on Wednesday after 43 years at the city planning department. He's been director since 2001.
Lexington Planning Director Chris King is retiring on Wednesday after 43 years at the city planning department. He's been director since 2001. Herald-Leader

A blue recycling bin was parked outside Chris King's seventh-floor office in the city's Phoenix Building on a recent Thursday.

And on top of a bookcase were large white boxes crammed with documents that will be sent to the city's official archives.

"I'm trying to figure out what's an official record and needs to be saved," King said. "I've also found a couple of letters of resignation in there that I never sent," he said, laughing. "I decided not to read them until my retirement. "

King, 64, has spent much of the past two weeks sorting through 43 years of accumulated papers acquired during his four decades in Lexington's planning department. King, who started in planning as a University of Kentucky student at age 21 in 1972, is retiring Wednesday. He has been director of planning since 2001.

Through the city's biggest planning fights — whether to expand the city's urban service boundary — to the smaller ones — what can go where and why — King has been the one constant over the past 40 years. He has worked under seven merged government mayors and has seen dozens and dozens of Urban County Council members come and go.

Those who know King say his knowledge and experience guiding the city's growth will be impossible to replace.

"We are all going to miss him," said Don Todd, a former urban county councilman and a lawyer who has appeared frequently before the city's planning bodies over the past several decades. "I have fought against him. I have been on the same side as him. Through it all, he is a consummate professional. He had a clear vision on what the city should be and despite political pressures on him, time and time again, he always tried to do the right thing."

Mayor Jim Gray said King's steady hand and unflappable demeanor have made him one of the city's most valued employees.

"I really respect Chris King," Gray said. "He represents the best of public service. Over many years, he has led in a tough, challenging environment, always with the highest integrity and professional judgment."

A search will begin for King's replacement. In the meantime, Jim Duncan will be interim director.

Bill Sallee, manager of the city's planning department, has worked with King for 30 of King's 43 years at the city. Sallee credits King with not only teaching him how to do the job, but showing him how to deal with the sometimes enormous pressures the planning staff faces from developers, to neighbors who hate those developers, to elected officials.

"He's been a mentor to me," Sallee said. "He's been a calming influence."

Mike Owens is the current chairman of the Urban County Planning Commission and has worked with King for 10 years. Because King was there when much of the city's zoning ordinances were enacted, he can explain how and why certain changes have been made over the past 40 years.

That knowledge has helped the current planning commission make key decisions, Owens said.

"Not only has he seen a lot of changes but he guided a lot of those changes. He remembers how it came about," Owens said.

Owens and Todd said the community owes King a lot. Without him, the balance between the preservation of Fayette County's rural landscape and economic growth may have turned out differently. It's the preservation of farmland that makes Lexington so unique, not just in Kentucky but across the country, Owens said.

"He has managed a very delicate balance, to maintain what we do have and yet allow growth to take place as well," Owens said.

King, who does not like to be in the spotlight, said it's the citizens of Fayette County who have made the biggest impact on the city's planning over the past four decades.

"I've talked to a lot of planning directors in other cities, and they say they just don't have that same level of public participation," King said. "We are blessed that we have a population that cares."

During the span of his career in planning, King has seen Fayette County grow and expand. He's seen how poor planning can lead to headaches and lawsuits and how effective planning can change the quality of life for city residents.

For example, after the governments merged in 1974, the planning staff had to merge two different zoning ordinances with very different standards. The county did not have the same requirements for building roads as the city, which required curbs and sidewalks for subdivisions. The county did not.

The county and the city had different standards for sewage treatment. The county allowed septic systems and private sewage treatment plants built by developers. Many of those private sewage treatment plants later failed. The city is currently under an Environmental Protection Agency consent decree to fix problems related to some failed private sewage treatment plants and for failing to expand its stormwater and sewage treatment system to accommodate rapid growth.

"Planning is not the hard part, it's the execution that's difficult," King said.

But the city's implementation of the Purchase of Development Rights program to protect farmland in 2000 will likely be viewed as forward-thinking in the decades to come, King said.

"We don't have the sprawl that other communities have," King said. "There aren't many cities that you can be in the center of downtown and in a short 10-minute drive you can be in some of the most beautiful rural landscape."

One of the most heated and complex battles during King's tenure was the fight over the expansion of the urban service area in 1996. It was contentious, but eventually ended in the expansion of the boundary by a little less than 5,400 acres.

That fight eventually led to the Purchase of Development Rights program, the rural land management plan and an infill and redevelopment plan to guide development downtown. King's fingerprints are on all of those plans. In addition, he helped write the city's urban forestry plan and many, many other strategic planning documents.

Great planning is not just about land use, King said.

Sometimes, it's the little things. For example, King has the city's first comprehensive plan — written in 1931. In it is a photo of Richmond Road. In 1931, Richmond Road looked like a new development — the streets and curbs were new and pristine, and the trees were small.

Today, the wide, grassy medians and adult trees that provide a shady canopy make it one of the city's most unique and desirable corridors.

No one likes waste. But King said he wished governments and private developers would think about long-term dividends, not just the bottom line, when building infrastructure that will last generations.

"I wish people would invest more in visual quality," King said.

Come Oct. 1, he plans to spend more time with his wife, a retired aide at Sayre School, his grandchildren and children.

Former Mayor Pam Miller tapped King to head the city's planning department in 2001 after King had held various positions within the department for decades. Miller said King has many talents besides planning.

'We had an employee talent show back then and that's when I learned that Chris is a really talented guitar player," Miller said. "Maybe that's what he used as stress relief all of these years."

In addition to spending more time playing guitar, King said he would also like to travel more. As planning director, he has spent thousands of hours at planning commission, council and neighborhood meetings. It's been hard to get away.

In addition to all that time in meetings, King can receive between 50 and 80 emails a day from citizens interested in various zone changes and other requests pending before the planning commission, the board of adjustment and board of architectural review. King manages a staff of 35 employees.

What he will miss most is working and meeting so many Lexington residents, he said.

"You get to work with amazing people on all sides," King said. "We agree about so much more than we disagree."