Fayette County

Lexington's Ashland Park neighborhood could soon be zoned a historic district

A sign at the corner of South Hanover Avenue and Fincastle Road in Lexington announced a public hearing for a zone change of the Ashland Park neighborhood. Opponents say H-1 historic district zoning will make it expensive and cumbersome to maintain property, because exterior changes would need city approval.
A sign at the corner of South Hanover Avenue and Fincastle Road in Lexington announced a public hearing for a zone change of the Ashland Park neighborhood. Opponents say H-1 historic district zoning will make it expensive and cumbersome to maintain property, because exterior changes would need city approval. Herald-Leader

Lexington's Ashland Park neighborhood, designed by the internationally renowned landscape firm of Frederick Law Olmsted, could soon be zoned as a historic district.

Fifth District Urban County Council member Bill Farmer, whose district includes Ashland Park, says the land, which was once owned by Henry Clay, should qualify for such a designation. But the looming change has its opponents.

Farmer said while not everybody is happy with the proposed historic overlay, "we all need to work within the process to have the best H-1 we can."

He described the proposed district as one of the most beautiful areas in Lexington.

"If you look at the core of where those boundaries are drawn, that is absolutely H-1 in any city in America," he said.

Opponents of the change say that H-1 historic zoning restrictions will make it expensive and cumbersome to maintain their property because exterior changes to a house have to be approved by the Board of Architectural Review.

Gayle Wilkes and her husband, who live on Turkeyfoot Road but own a rental house on South Hanover, are among those who oppose the historic zoning.

"H-1 overlay imposes such restrictions that it will increase maintenance costs on property. It's burdensome for owners and an imposition for people who bought homes in that neighborhood and didn't expect to take on that burden," Wilkes said.

A hearing is scheduled Thursday before the Planning Commission. The Commission will recommend to Urban County Council either approval, disapproval or withdrawal of the H-1 request. The council has to vote yes or no within 90 days.

The neighborhood began work in May to get the historic designation.

The proposed Ashland Park Historic District is bounded by Desha Road and South Hanover Avenue on the east and west, and Richmond Road and Fontaine Road on the north and south. It has 175 properties with 283 owners.

When historic zoning is requested, the planning staff sends a letter to notify all property owners in the affected area, with a postcard which they are asked to return indicating support or opposition, said Traci Wade, senior planner.

The Planning Commission takes the survey of property owners to gauge interest in going forward with a historic zoning initiative, Wade said. Residents are told half of respondents need to favor the H-1 overlay before it can proceed.

The planning staff mailed letters to 283 property owners, including 99 condominium owners in Hanover Towers. Of that total, 169 postcards were returned; 117 were in support, 48 were opposed and 4 had no opinion.

"If that isn't a mandate from affected property owners to go forward with H-1, we need a new definition of mandate," said Tony Chamblin, neighborhood president.

Chamblin said the H-1 overlay would preserve the historic and architectural integrity of the neighborhood.

"By any standard it's a historic area with beautiful houses that need to be protected," he said.

The only business in the proposed district is Janice's at the Salt Box, an interior design and home furnishing store at 859 East High Street. Andra Gyor, one of the owners, said she's "happy to be included."

"What they're trying to avoid is people tearing down property and building a parking garage, or taking a house and making it a duplex," Gyor said. "It protects us from having things changed too drastically. I'm very supportive."

Shirley Wiseman opposes H-1 zoning, saying it infringes on the personal rights of property owners. "It tells you exactly what you can and can't do with your property. It takes away your right of choice," she said.

Wiseman does not live in Ashland Park, but she wants an exemption for a rental house she owns at the corner of Fontaine and High streets. The three corners across from her house are anchored with businesses.

Final boundaries of the historic district might end up "not being exactly as they are drawn now because some people may want in or out for different reasons," Farmer said. "As usual with an H-1 overlay, it has to do with the boundaries."

Some people might want in or out for different reasons, Farmer said.

Ashland Park was developed by descendants of Henry Clay between about 1900 and 1930 on land purchased by Clay in the early 1800s for his farm.

Frederick Law Olmsted's landscaping firm in Brookline, Mass., was hired to lay out the neighborhood. The firm was nationally known for such projects as Central Park in New York City, the Biltmore estate in Asheville, N.C., and the grounds of the Kentucky State Capitol in Frankfort.

The streets in Ashland Park are laid out in gentle curving patterns with green spaces and medians planted with trees and shrubs and greenspaces, features for which Olmsted was known. The wide median of South Hanover Avenue was originally for a streetcar line. Some of the trees planted by Olmsted are still in the neighborhood, Chamblin said.

The neighborhood was listed in 1986 on the National Register of Historic Places. That listing does not impose design restrictions on houses, nor does it give protection to keep them from being torn down.

In a local H-1 district, when a home or business owner wants to make changes — such as building a porch or replacing windows — plans must be approved by the Board of Architectural Review. Owners do not need permits to paint their houses, perform routine maintenance or change landscaping. Removing a tree greater than 10 inches in diameter does require a permit.

Two-thirds of requests are reviewed — and permits are issued — by the staff of the Division of Historic Preservation. The Board of Architectural Review reviews the other applications.

H-1 protects a property from being torn down without board approval. It is an overlay zoning that stands in addition to other zoning in the area.

Chamblin said numerous economic studies show H-1 increases property values. One study, by University of Kentucky graduate student Maria Gissendanner, examined property values in local historic districts of Woodward Heights, Bell Court, Western Suburb and South Hill. Residences increased in value 67 percent from 1997 to 2007, which was as much as 50 percent more than Lexington houses not in a historic district.

Property values on South Ashland Avenue — already in a historic district — increased 22 percent between 1996 and 2012 compared to other streets in the neighborhood, according to a neighborhood association analysis, Chamblin said.

No studies indicate that local historic overlay districts reduce property values, according to the Division of Historic Preservation.

Overall, Farmer said the proposed Ashland Park Historic District is a well-founded idea.

"You've got an Olmsted designed neighborhood. If that's not what it takes to get H-1 overlay in Lexington, we've got a real problem," he said.

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader