VERSAILLES — There is an old saying about military leaders who fail because they plan for the last war instead of the next one. The Woodford County Planning and Zoning Commission may be about to make a similar mistake.
Commissioners want to remove a decade-old ban on development in the county's Agriculture/Equine Preserve District, which has some of the world's best horse farms and richest soil. They also want to consider costly extensions to the Blue Grass Parkway and Falling Springs Boulevard through prime farmland.
These short-sighted moves would encourage the kind of unsustainable development we saw in the last century, rather than the economic strategies that are likely to be successful in the next one.
The proposed changes to Woodford County's five-year comprehensive plan would chip away at wise land-use policies that have fueled growing agriculture and tourism industries. The changes seem unjustified, contrary to the plan's goals and objectives and were proposed without public input.
More than 100 citizens filled a courtroom last Thursday for their first — and perhaps only — opportunity to comment on the plan, which was drafted by a four-member commission committee headed by Brian Traugott.
A few people spoke in favor of the changes, including Versailles Mayor Fred Siegelman, Woodford Judge-Executive John Coyle and Brad McLean, chairman of the county's Economic Development Authority.
Many more people spoke against the changes: average citizens, a prominent businessman, a former governor and a variety of farmers from all over Woodford County.
"What's being proposed in this plan will hurt our business and economic development, because it is going in the wrong direction," said Joe Graviss, who owns McDonald's restaurants and employs about 60 people.
"Why would the county allow the destruction of its most valuable asset?" asked horse farmer Richard Masson.
The World Monuments Fund in 2007 declared Kentucky's Inner Bluegrass region one of the planet's most endangered landscapes. Woodford County has some of the best examples of it.
Good land stewardship has helped give Woodford County an enviable quality of life and some of Kentucky's highest employment and per-capita income rates. There is plenty of residential, commercial and industrial land already set aside to handle anticipated growth for many years.
Rather than open the agriculture preserve to possible development, future rural subdivisions should be banned countywide, several citizens said. Existing rural subdivisions have hurt surrounding farms, marred the landscape and burdened taxpayers with costly infrastructure and support services.
Economic development trends show that the successful communities of the future will be those that guard their beauty and quality of life, not those that encourage sprawl and generic development. Farmland values are skyrocketing nationwide because investors realize that rising transportation costs will make locally grown food more important in the future.
In an interview earlier last week, Traugott insisted that the proposed changes would result in little additional development. But Lexington attorney Bruce Simpson, speaking at the hearing on Masson's behalf, told commissioners that if they crack the door, developers will hire good lawyers like him to blow it wide open.
As bad as the proposed changes are, the heavy-handed political process seems even worse. Unlike previous plan updates, the public was not allowed input on the draft. The commission's Web site posted copies of the current plan and new draft, but nothing more to identify or explain the differences.
"Who requested these changes, and why?" Graviss asked. Commissioners declined to answer any questions at the hearing. Citizens were allowed to submit written comments or speak for no more than three minutes. When former Gov. Brereton Jones, a Midway horse farmer who opposes the changes, exceeded his time limit, he became the first of several speakers to be silenced by a honking horn.
"There are some significant questions that need to be answered," Jones told commissioners, adding that "180 seconds" of comment is a poor substitute for honest analysis, discussion and debate.
Commissioners could approve the changes as soon as Thursday. But if they are smart, they will take this draft back for a rewrite. They should remove the controversial changes, or offer evidence for why they are justified. And they should let the public participate in these important public decisions.
If commissioners and the elected officials who appointed them allow these changes to be rammed through, they risk both Woodford County's future and their own political skins.