Lexington doesn’t have enough land available to accommodate growing businesses or attract new ones and needs to expand its growth boundary, business leaders told the Urban County Planning Commission during a public hearing Thursday.
Carla Blanton, chairwoman of Commerce Lexington, said site selectors for companies bypass Fayette County because they know it does not have a large business park with shovel-ready property.
“We don’t even know what projects we are missing out on,” Blanton said Thursday. Without land for a business park “we can’t accommodate future or even existing employers.”
Commerce Lexington is the city’s chamber of commerce and works with the city to attract new businesses.
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Blanton and several others from the business, building and real estate sectors spoke Thursday during a meeting on the proposed recommendations for the 2018 Comprehensive Plan, as did farmland preservation groups that oppose expanding Lexington’s Urban Service Boundary.
The planning commission’s draft plan recommends that Fayette County keep its current growth boundary. Instead of expanding, the city should focus on infill and development and underutilized commercial corridors, city planners have said. Once it is finalized, the 2018 Comprehensive Plan will guide growth and development in the city for five years.
The most controversial part of the plan is whether to expand the Urban Service Area, where neighborhoods and shopping centers are allowed.
Roughly half of the more than 35 people who spoke during Thursday’s public hearing said they thought the growth boundary should be expanded. The other speakers — mainly from agricultural groups and neighborhood associations — supported the recommendation to leave the growth boundary untouched.
The Urban County Planning Commission will meet at 3 p.m. Thursday to continue discussions and likely take a final vote on the proposal. The plan will then go to the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council, which has 90 days to take a final vote on the recommendations.
Taylor Sawyer of Big Ass Solutions told the commission the Lexington-based company cannot find enough land within the Urban Service Area to house all of its employees.
“We are in five different locations,” Sawyer said.
Builders and real estate agents said that with little land for new developments, prices for houses in Fayette County keep climbing. A recent housing study showed that more than 51 percent of people who work in Fayette County drive to work from a different county.
Nick Nicholson, a lawyer who has represented developers before the planning commission, said although people say there are thousands of acres of vacant land within the Urban Service Boundary, not all of that land is available for development. More dense and compact developments are laudable, but will not solve Lexington’s land crunch, he said.
“The fact that we are not looking at the how and where (to expand) is a mistake,” Nicholson said.
Those that support keeping the current growth boundary said Lexington needs to focus on making use of land that is already designated for development.
The city heard from more than 11,000 people prior to developing the 2018 Comprehensive Plan and the majority of those people supported keeping the current growth boundary, they argued.
“We have plenty of land to accommodate our growth,” said Susan Speckert, executive director of the farmland preservation group Fayette Alliance. Her group estimates the city has more than 17,000acres of vacant, undeveloped and underutilized land inside the boundary.
The city should focus on policies that “activate our existing land,” she said.
Elisabeth Jensen, who serves on the city’s Greenspace Commission and owns a farm in Fayette County, said she supports keeping the current growth boundary to protect Lexington’s rich and unique farmland.
“Nobody can create new land anymore,” Jensen said. “Once it’s gone, it’s gone.”
Brad Connell of Prometheus Bronze Foundry, who has a farm in Fayette County, said he lived in Atlanta before moving to Lexington to attend graduate school at the University of Kentucky. Connell said he supports keeping the current growth boundary because he saw the unchecked sprawl that happened in Atlanta.
“I think Atlanta is the poster child of what not to do,” Connell said.
Planning commission members said after the nearly two-hour public hearing they would also look at any letters or emails sent to the commission before taking a final vote next Thursday.
The debate on whether to expand Fayette County’s growth boundary has long been contentious. It was last expanded in 1996, when 5,400 acres were opened for development.