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Tom Eblen: It's time to get involved in Lexington's planning process

Tom Eblen
Tom Eblen

Lexington leaders have taken a significant first step in the latest round of planning for growth and prosperity. Now, it is time for them and everyone else to get involved in taking the next steps.

The mayor, most Urban County Council and Planning Commission members and representatives of the Home Builders Association and Commerce Lexington announced April 26 that they all agreed there is no need to expand the Urban Services Boundary in the foreseeable future.

That was a big step because it eliminated a divisive issue that has dominated previous updates of Lexington's comprehensive land-use plan. Who can forget the bumper-sticker war of the 1990s: "Growth is Good" vs. "Growth Destroys Bluegrass Forever." With the process no longer framed by a false choice of extremes, Lexington can now deal with the more complex reality.

A lot else has changed since the last plan update in 2006. The economy, housing market and lending environment are in serious slumps. We also know more than we did five years ago about the larger issues shaping Lexington's future. And there is more expertise on these issues in the mayor's office and council chambers than Lexington has ever seen before.

Officials say there are 6,700 vacant acres available for development inside the Urban Services Boundary, and perhaps an additional 6,000 acres suitable for redevelopment. "We have to be very sophisticated about how we use this land," said Knox van Nagell, executive director of the Fayette Alliance, a group started in 2006 to promote good land use and rural preservation.

Two city task forces focusing on "infill and re development" and downtown "design excellence" have been working on proposed changes to those rules, and their chairmen say priorities are being set and recommendations will be made later this year.

Planners and developers also have better information to work with, thanks to a housing market study the city commissioned in 2008. It showed how development needs for the next two decades, when Lexington is expected to add an additional 50,000 residents, will be much different than in the past few decades.

Demand for the kind of residential development that has dominated in Lexington for decades — single-family, suburban homes with yards — is diminishing, and not just because buyers looking for that kind of home can get more for their money in surrounding counties.

Many aging baby boomers and their children want high-quality density: in-town, mixed-use neighborhoods where they can go places by walking or biking and not just driving a car.

The study also noted a serious shortage of affordable housing, which will become a bigger issue as global demand pushes gasoline prices higher. BUILD, a coalition of Lexington churches, has proposed creating a trust fund to help developers build affordable housing, a strategy effective in other cities. But city officials have been cool to the tax increase BUILD suggested, and other ways to raise several million dollars to start the fund haven't been found.

There are other good ideas out there, too. The Fayette Alliance wants the city to create a land bank and vacant land commission — such as Louisville has — to streamline the process of private redevelopment of vacant and blighted land.

Ken Silvestri, a real estate broker whose recent deals include Southland Christian Church's acquisition of the blighted former Lexington Mall site, has a few ideas, too.

He would like the city to assemble a database of land available for redevelopment, along with information about ownership and zoning. More analysis should be done about the "highest and best use" of available sites. And a more streamlined process for permits and approvals would make Lexington more attractive to developers and companies looking to bring jobs here, he said.

But just as the old bumper-sticker war presented a false set of extreme choices, Silvestri thinks Lexington can both encourage development and maintain high standards.

"When you set out to do things right, to do things that are first-class and sustainable, it's always a better model," he said.

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