Tom Eblen

Lexington should think differently about expanding growth boundary. Here’s why.

A view of houses on Logan’s Fort Lane near Lexington’s urban service boundary.
A view of houses on Logan’s Fort Lane near Lexington’s urban service boundary.

The Lexington Planning Commission’s public hearing on the 2018 comprehensive land-use plan went as I expected: Builders, real estate people and industrial recruiters want the Urban Services Boundary expanded; most others do not.

The boundary, created in 1958 to keep sprawl from swallowing up the unique Bluegrass landscape and horse farms, was last expanded in 1996, when 5,400 acres were added to the Urban Services Area. The 2008 financial collapse slowed demand for a while, but the appetite for development is rising again.

The city’s planning staff has recommended no expansion of the boundary for the next five years. Instead, they want Lexington to double down on its recent strategy of infill and redevelopment of existing urban land.

The Planning Commission is expected to decide Sept. 7 whether to adopt or change the staff’s recommendations. The Urban County Council will have the final say, and several members attended last Thursday’s public hearing to listen.

We go through this process every five years, and the debate is always focused more on short-term desires than long-term consequences. But this year, Lexington has the opportunity to do something different.

The city planning staff has done an excellent job of research and analysis to set the stage for this decision. It has proposed solid strategies for balancing short-term economic considerations with long-term, sustainable growth.

In developing its recommendations, the staff sought public input more than ever before. More than 10,000 people submitted comments on a variety of relevant topics, 78 percent of whom said they had never before participated in the planning process. (The “vast majority” who offered opinions on expanding the Urban Services Boundary were against it.)

One healthy aspect of this year’s discussion is that it has been more fact-based and less emotional than in the past. Thankfully, we don’t see simplistic “Growth is Good” and “Growth Destroys Bluegrass Forever” bumper stickers, as we did in the 1990s.

City planners say there are 5,600 acres — 10 percent of everything inside the Urban Services Boundary — undeveloped, and 35 percent of it is in parcels of 100 acres or more.

Pro-expansion advocates are correct when they say that “undeveloped” land doesn’t necessarily mean “available for development.” But unless any new expansion land were publicly controlled, there would be nothing to prevent investors from buying and sitting on it, as they have done with hundreds of acres now within the urban boundary.

Sure, Lexington loses some industrial and residential development to surrounding counties, as pro-expansion advocates argue. But often that is more because of land price than availability. A modest boundary expansion won’t make Lexington land prices competitive with those in outlying counties.

Much has been made of the fact that 51 percent of Lexington workers now live in other counties. So what? That is typical now of large regional hub cities like Lexington. Besides, Kentucky counties are small.

Builders like to raise the specter of “gentrification” and housing affordability. What they build, though, isn’t based on “affordability” but on what is profitable for them in the market. There’s nothing wrong with that — they are in business to make money — but let’s not pretend that opening a few more Fayette County acres for residential development will make much difference in local housing affordability.

Attorney Jon Larson keeps saying that regional planning is needed, and he said it again Thursday. He’s right. But unless Kentucky changes its whole system of property and occupational taxes, not to mention land-use planning laws, it will never happen.

The city planning staff is right: There is no compelling case for expanding the Urban Services Boundary.

But there is a compelling argument to not expand: Lexington has a finite supply of land, and it is special — agriculturally, ecologically, culturally and as a unique quality-of-life asset that makes people want to live here. The same goes for Lexington’s historical neighborhoods, which Transylvania University economist Alan Bartley said at Thursday’s hearing don’t receive nearly enough attention and protection.

Infill and redevelopment is a relatively new concept in Lexington, but it is working. The city needs to develop detailed plans and better strategies for deciding where it should go, what it should look like and how to make it happen. But we won’t do that if we keep getting distracted by expansion fights.

Having new green fields to develop will always provide an economic boost, until you don’t have any more green fields. These are not five-year planning decisions; they are 50-year and 500-year decisions. It’s time we treated them that way.

Tom Eblen: 859-231-1415, @tomeblen