Fayette County

Should Lexington spend $5 million to protect 1,000-acre farm owned by a foreign citizen?

Castleton Lyons at 2469 Ironworks Pike in Lexington.
Castleton Lyons at 2469 Ironworks Pike in Lexington. palcala@herald-leader.com

The board that oversees Lexington’s farmland preservation program wants the Urban County Council to allocate $5 million to protect a farm of more than 1,000 acres owned by an Irish citizen.

Elizabeth Overman, the director of the Purchase of Development Rights program, told a council budget subcommittee Wednesday that the city’s Rural Land Management Board voted Monday to ask the council for $5 million to buy the development rights for Castleton Lyons on Ironworks Pike.

The subcommittee will present its recommendation to the full council at the end of May. The council will decide whether to pay for the development rights.

The farm is owned by Shane Ryan, an Irish citizen and the son of the late Tony Ryan, who started European airline Ryanair. The farm has been appraised at $5.28 million.

The Rural Land Management Board oversees Lexington’s PDR program. Under the program, the city buys development rights for property it does not want to see developed, in order to preserve farmland around the city.

Typically, the federal government pays half.

However, Ryan does not qualify for federal funds because he is not a U.S. citizen and does not pay federal income taxes. The federal program also has an annual income limit of $900,000. (The local PDR program does not have a citizenship requirement or an income limit.)

The conversation about whether to buy the development rights to Castleton Lyons is taking place in the context of discussion about Mayor Jim Gray’s proposed $358 million budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1. The budget proposal, unveiled in early April, includes $1 million for PDR.

In August 2016, when the Rural Land Management Board was first debating whether to buy Castleton Lyons’ development rights, Gray said he did not support it.

“In my opinion, we can’t afford it,” Gray said then. “It is a board decision, but this is more than we spend on PDR in two years.”

Susan Straub, a spokeswoman for the city, said Wednesday that Gray is going to let the council deliberate before weighing in.

Buying the development rights for Castleton Lyon for $5 million would cost the city about $150,000 in debt payments for the first year and $300,000 for each additional year. With interest, it would cost the city a total of about $7.5 million over 20 years, Finance Commissioner Bill O’Mara said.

Those who support purchasing the development rights point out that Castleton Lyons is one of the largest unprotected farms in Fayette County. Additionally, supporters say, Castleton Lyons pays local and state taxes, and its operations contribute to the local economy.

Councilwoman Kathy Plomin, who represents the 12th District, which includes Castleton Lyons, attended Wednesday’s budget subcommittee. Plomin said the ordinance does not say that the city has to use federal funds. It also says the city should pursue the highest-ranked farms first, under a ranking system that includes criteria such as soil quality.

A Castleton Lyons application received the top ranking in 2015. (PDR records show that other farms have been pursued in different order for different reasons.)

City officials should remember that the land itself — not its owner — is most important, said Frank Penn, a Rural Land Management Board member who attended Wednesday’s budget subcommittee meeting. Penn noted that Castleton Lyons is surrounded by PDR-protected farms, including his own, making that area more attractive to buyers looking for a large tract for a large agricultural operation.

On the other hand, Councilman Kevin Stinnett, who chairs the council’s budget committee, pointed out that Lexington’s needs continue to mount — particularly in the area of public safety. Lexington needs more emergency medical technicians and paramedics to staff ambulances as the number of calls continues to rise. There are also plans to add another police sector in coming years, which requires additional officers, offices and equipment costs.

“To fund additional PDR above the mayor’s budget at this time would be neglecting our top priorities of public safety and infrastructure and be a real disservice to the hardworking taxpayers of Lexington and offset that balance,” Stinnett said.

Since its creation in 2000, the PDR program has allocated $77 million — $37 million in local money, $24 million in federal money and $16 million in state money — to buy conservation easements for more than 28,000 acres. With additional farms under contract, the city will soon have more than 30,000 acres of protected farmland.

Beth Musgrave: 859-231-3205, @HLCityhall