Woodford debates zoning change to allow CastlePost restaurant

CastlePost has been open since 2008.
CastlePost has been open since 2008.

VERSAILLES — It's a simple proposal: CastlePost, the turreted "luxury tourist inn" on U.S. 60 in Woodford County, would like to open a restaurant to the general public.

But when it comes to the castle, and especially zoning issues concerning the unusual landmark, nothing is simple.

Since it opened near the Fayette County line in 2008, CastlePost has been open only to overnight guests or to those who attend charity or other fund-raisers there.

On Tuesday, Woodford Fiscal Court will consider "text amendments" to the planning and zoning ordinance that would allow restaurants, gift shops and special activities not only at CastlePost but at horse farms and certain other "landmarks" or "historic structures" in the county.

Supporters say the amendments would bring another dining option and more money to Woodford County.

"It would be an asset to our community if the castle did do that," said Versailles Realtor Harold Steele. He submitted written comments supporting the amendments to the planning commission.

But others, including Sue Fosson, treasurer of the Pisgah Community Historic Association, say the amendments open the door to more noise, traffic, pollution and incompatible uses to rural areas elsewhere in the county.

"I don't really have an issue with the castle having a restaurant," Fosson said. "I'm against it for the ramifications for the entire county. I think they have written it in order to allow the castle to do what they have wanted, and in doing so, have opened up a Pandora's box that they don't think anybody will take advantage of."

The debate was vigorous at a couple of hearings last fall, when the planning commission sought public comments on the amendments.

The planning commission voted 8-1 in December to recommend approval of the amendments to the county government and the city councils in Midway and Versailles.

The amendments define proposed new terms in the planning ordinance called "tourist destination" and "tourist destination, expanded."

A "tourist destination" is defined as a unique, regionally recognized existing landmark or historic structure that promotes tourism and the local economy. It must be at least 30 acres in size and have road frontage on a state or federal highway. Its restaurant seating must be limited to 75 patrons.

CastlePost and other attractions fitting this definition would be able to open a restaurant right away, with no government approval other than to be in compliance with building codes, health regulations and other laws.

"Tourist destination, expanded" would allow a restaurant with seating for more than 75 patrons and would allow special events — receptions, parties, corporate picnics, weddings — to exceed seven a week. It could have more than 10 guest rooms. The county's board of adjustment would have to approve applications for this.

Some opponents initially alleged the amendments were thinly veiled special legislation drafted solely for CastlePost's benefit.

Planning officials and Bill Moore, the Versailles lawyer who represents castle owner Thomas Post, deny that. But they acknowledge that CastlePost, built with a restaurant-quality kitchen, is likely to be the first to seek expanded dining opportunities.

Lexington contractor Rex Martin Sr. started building the castle in 1969, but it sat unfinished and empty for decades.

Then Post, a Miami lawyer and graduate of Lexington's Lafayette High School and the University of Kentucky, bought it for $1.8 million in 2003. While it was being restored, a May 2004 fire burned the house.

In 2008 it opened as CastlePost to guests who could make use of its swimming pool, tennis court and grand ballroom. Its guests have included a Saudi prince and buyers of horses at nearby Keeneland. And it has hosted several charity fund-raisers for the Salvation Army, the Scott County Humane Society and other organizations.

Conditions set by the county's board of adjustment restrict CastlePost to entertaining overnight guests only and hosting special events such as fund-raisers.

Moore, Post's attorney, said the castle owner has wanted to have a restaurant for two years, "so that people could get dressed up for a nice dinner and go to a nice place."

"There is really no place in Versailles to do that," Moore said. "He thinks people here locally ought to be able to do that.

"I think he wants to see more use of the castle that involves the community more. The way it is now, if you want to have dinner out there, you've got to rent a room, which makes it prohibitively expensive to go out there for dinner."

Room rates at CastlePost range from $195 for a weekday stay without dinner to $830 for a weekend night in a Royal Turret Suite that includes dinner, according to the inn's website. The middle-range weekend rates including dinner are $400 to $600 a night.

Charles Martin, CastlePost's general manager, said requests to see the castle from the general public are "overwhelming. They're kind of turned off when they can't come here unless they're a guest."

CastlePost is profitable, Martin said, "but it could be more profitable."

"We want to have more people for dinner. More people could stop in for dinner without staying overnight," he said. "That would increase restaurant revenue."

Pattie Wilson, Woodford County's planning director, said other sites in the county have asked in the past whether they could hold periodic events or open a restaurant. The amendment was written to address those sites.

At least three Woodford Thoroughbred horse farms — Lane's End, Three Chimneys and WinStar — host periodic tours that draw more than 40,000 people each year. The amendments would allow those farms to open gift shops, overnight accommodations or restaurants. Wilson said she has not heard a desire by those farms to do anything more than tours.

Fosson, who lives next to WinStar, said the amendments would allow the farm "to put in the building right next to my house a restaurant with 75 people in it."

"I don't think they're going to do anything like this or take advantage of this, but the same owners aren't going to own it forever," Fosson said.

The Woodford Coalition, a citizens' group that monitors zoning issues, said the amendments should set a maximum number for special events and should address sewage management for restaurants in agricultural zones that probably will be on septic systems. The latter issue is regulated by the health department, Wilson said.

Another improvement would be to add an overlay zone designation such as is used in historic districts in Fayette County, said Lori Garkovich, a member of the coalition.

An overlay could apply special rules or opportunities not normally allowed in an agricultural zone. Such an overlay would provide protections to reinforce the unique qualities of landmarks or historic structures.

"That would then ensure that there is an opportunity for neighbors, whose own enjoyment of their property may be affected by that tourist destination property, to express their concerns," Garkovich said.

Woodford Fiscal Court on Tuesday will be the first local government body to take up the text amendments. The city councils in Versailles and Midway will wait to see whether the fiscal court tweaks the amendments.

Then, if the fiscal court votes to approve the amendments, the cities could vote. The three local governments don't have to be unanimous in approval, but the amendments would be in force only within the limits of those governments that have passed them.

Fosson hopes the fiscal court looks closely at the amendments.

"I want them to fully consider all the issues," she said.

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