Tom Eblen: Citizens Planning Academy offers insight on Lexington's growth

When I moved back here 15 years ago, Lexingtonians were battling with bumper stickers. Builders and developers had "Growth is Good" stickers on their bumpers. Preservationists had "Growth Destroys Bluegrass Forever" on theirs.

It was a pointless debate. Growth is inevitable. The question is how best to handle it.

Fortunately, discussions about growth and development are now less heated and simplistic and more productive. Both sides realize that Lexington's future depends on steady, well-planned growth that encourages compatible economic development but doesn't spoil the Bluegrass's unique beauty and quality of life.

I gained some valuable insights into these issues recently by joining 28 other local people in a program called Citizens Planning Academy. We met for two hours each Wednesday morning for six weeks to hear experts speak about all aspects of local growth and planning from a variety of viewpoints.

The program was organized by the land-use advocacy group Fayette Alliance and co-sponsored by the Home Builders Association of Lexington, the Fayette Farm Bureau, the American Society of Landscape Architects and The Plantory, a shared workspace for social entrepreneurs.

While Lexington has made mistakes over the years, it has been trying longer and harder than most cities to manage growth. The city's first comprehensive plan was adopted in 1931. My house was then at the eastern edge of the city limits. Now, many people refer to it as being "downtown."

The 1931 plan referred to Union Station, the long-ago-demolished train depot, as the most important building in town.

Ironically, it is now the site of the recently renovated Helix parking garage and the office where people take automobile driving tests and get their licenses.

In 1958 — 15 years before city-county merger — Lexington became the first city in America to set an urban growth boundary to limit suburban sprawl and protect rural land. Over the years, the Urban Services Area has been expanded from 22 percent of the county to about 30 percent.

From the 1950s to the early 2000s, Lexington experienced rapid, automobile-centric growth as residential subdivisions and shopping centers were built on former farmland. In recent years, there has been more focus on urban infill and redevelopment as everyone realized Fayette County's farmland and open space is precious, finite and vital to Lexington's economy, image and quality of life.

Unlike most areas of Kentucky, Lexington is likely to see continued population growth, from a current 302,000 people to about 376,000 by 2030. How are we planning for that growth?

Here are a couple of trends to watch:

Future growth will likely be more dense, more urban and less dependent on automobiles.

"We're planning for a different type of population," said Chris King, director of Lexington's Division of Planning.

Many aging baby boomers and young people want to be able to walk or bike to work, shopping and entertainment. That means different styles of new neighborhoods and retrofitting older neighborhoods to make them less isolated.

Residential development and revitalization of in-town neighborhoods has been a key piece of the renaissance of downtown Lexington as a mixed-use area. That trend is likely to continue, King said.

That's good, because it makes more efficient use of land. But increasing density is sure to spark conflict with some existing neighborhoods.

Another big factor in Lexington's future growth will be outdoor water quality. Many developments in recent decades were built with inadequate infrastructure, which led to stormwater runoff problems and pollution of local streams. The city must spend millions of dollars to remedy past sins and prevent new ones under a consent decree with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

That means that sewer capacity will limit future growth much more severely in the past. But the consent decree also has prompted city officials to get creative with natural solutions for stormwater management and filtering: permeable pavement, stream-bank restoration and systems for capturing and reusing rainwater.

The exciting Town Branch Commons proposal could be another piece of "green" infrastructure, creating both a linear park through downtown and helping to manage storm-water runoff.

The Fayette Alliance plans another Citizens Planning Academy next year, but dates have not been set. Watch for more information about how to apply.