Fayette County

‘We need the jobs now.’ How scarce land for new businesses could alter growth debate.

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Some members of the Lexington council said Tuesday that the city doesn’t have shovel-ready public land it can use to attract new businesses and add jobs, and that issue could determine whether the current growth boundary needs to be expanded now or later.

“I don’t see anywhere on this map where we can create jobs,” Lexington-Fayette Urban County Councilman Richard Moloney said during a special council committee meeting Tuesday. “We need the jobs now.”

Other council members agreed.

“We are going to run out of time and we are eventually going to run out of land,” Councilman James Brown said.

The draft 2018 Comprehensive Plan does not recommend expanding the current growth boundary. But some council members said Tuesday that the city needs land now to attract more jobs. The majority of the city’s tax revenue comes from occupational or payroll taxes. After years of growth, the city’s tax revenues are flat. To boot, the state’s ballooning pension debt is likely to mean a steep increase in the city’s pension payment, which will be an additional drain on the city’s resources.

The council has debated changes to the 2018 comprehensive plan, which will guide growth in the next five years, for several weeks. A final vote is expected Nov. 7.

The Urban County Planning Commission voted 7 to 4 in September to approve the goals and changes that don’t include expanding the current growth boundary. But those goals and objectives includes a recommendation that would change the way Lexington plans for future expansion after 2022, when the 2018 comprehensive plan expires. It includes a study to identify rural areas the county wants to protect over the long-term from future development. Land not identified for the rural land preserve could be considered for development, but only after certain thresholds or triggers are met. Those thresholds and triggers would be defined by the study.

The study would take about two years to complete, city planning director Jim Duncan said.

The city’s planning staff had recommended that the city keep the current growth boundary, saying there was more than 5,600 acres inside the boundary available for development. Some land added for economic development during the 1996 expansion has not been developed. The city also agreed to zoning changes for the University of Kentucky Coldstream Research Campus and land added during the last expansion so it could further attract more businesses to vacant land there.

The city needs time to see whether those changes will attract more businesses to currently available land, some council members said.

They said job growth can come from existing businesses in the current growth boundary. For example, repeated expansion of University of Kentucky Healthcare Services has added thousands of high-paying jobs over the past several decades, Vice Mayor Steve Kay said.

Councilwoman Susan Lamb said there also is a cost to expand — particularly if that expansion includes only homes. The city receives only a small portion of its tax revenue from property taxes. But it must provide services to neighborhoods, including roads, police and fire protection and garbage collection.

“It is hard to sit here and think that we can just expand not knowing what our future revenue and expenses are going to be,” Lamb said.

Duncan said that’s why planning staff has recommended an exhaustive study first that could be completed before the next five-year plan begins.

Councilman Kevin Stinnett said the 5,000 available acres is all privately controlled land. It is not controlled by the city or Commerce Lexington, the city’s chamber and economic development arm. During Tuesday’s meeting, Stinnett asked the city’s lawyers to explore what language would be needed to amend the current plan to expand the growth boundary for economic development. Stinnett stopped short of saying whether he would support such a move, but he said the council at least needed to know if it was possible.

Later at public hearing that last more than two hours, business people argued that the city has lost several new business because it had no land.

Darby Turner, the vice chairman of the economic development committee for Commerce Lexington, said nothing is more important than a vibrant community.

“The city’s revenue is now flat,” Turner said. “Site consultants regularly tell us that we do not have properly zoned industrial parks for their projects.”

Site selectors no longer approach Fayette County with potential projects, he said.

Three projects — including Amazon — have gone to other communities because there is no publicly available land in Fayette County, Turner said.

Gina Greathouse, a vice president at Commerce Lexington, said Terry Gill, the secretary of the Kentucky Cabinet of Economic Development, has emphasized that businesses make decisions quickly. If there is no shovel-ready land available in a county, businesses will look elsewhere, Greathouse said.

But the agricultural sector also adds jobs and revenue, farm advocates told the council Tuesday.

Susan Speckert, executive director of the Fayette Alliance, which advocates on behalf of agricultural community, said the planning staff spent more than a year looking at objective data and recommended the current boundary remain. The city also got input from more than 11,000 citizens. The vast majority of those people didn’t want the growth boundary to be expanded.

”We have plenty of land to grow jobs within our current growth boundary,” Speckert said.

Others said that agricultural provides one in 12 jobs in Fayette County and contributed $2.3 billion annually to the economy.

Lexington’s Urban Service Boundary was last expanded in 1996, when 5,400 acres were opened for development.

Beth Musgrave: 859-231-3205, @HLCityhall