Tom Eblen

Jim Gray leaves office with a great record on development. How he can make sure it lasts.

Houses at the end of Logan's Fort Lane near the Urban Service Boundary in April 2011.
Houses at the end of Logan's Fort Lane near the Urban Service Boundary in April 2011. cbertram@herald-leader.com

Mayor Jim Gray steps down in January after eight years of solid accomplishment. He and the Urban County Council have worked together to manage the city well and tackle some tough, previously ignored problems.

Perhaps their greatest legacy will be the city’s role in growth and development.

They launched important urban infrastructure projects such as the Lexington Center/Rupp Arena expansion and renovation, Town Branch Commons, Town Branch Park, the old courthouse renovation and the Coldstream economic development land swap. Those projects will pay dividends for decades.

They focused on infill and redevelopment strategies and resisted pressure from powerful business interests to expand the Urban Services Boundary or allow poorly designed development.

This is worth pointing out because Gray is about to make three appointments to the Planning Commission that could help cement his legacy — or scuttle it.

Builder Mike Cravens has finished his third four-year term on the commission and must step down. Former chairwoman Carolyn Richardson, who has served two terms, isn’t seeking reappointment. Gray appointed banker Larry Forester last year to serve out Realtor Joe Smith’s term after he named Smith to fill a vacant Council seat. He is likely to reappoint Forester to his own term.

Although major decisions must ultimately be approved by the Council, the Planning Commission plays an important role in shaping Lexington’s growth and development. That role will soon get even bigger.

Over the next year, the commission will manage a process to write specific criteria for determining when the Urban Services Boundary can be expanded. The last expansion was in 1996, when 5,400 rural acres were opened for development.

Until now, the decision about whether or not to expand has been made every five years as part of the comprehensive land-use plan update. Those decisions often have been based on emotional arguments and lobbying by development interests rather than facts and data. Criteria would make the process more objective and data-driven — but potentially more frequent, beginning as early as 2020.

What that criteria turns out to be and how it is determined will be crucial for Lexington’s future. Gray needs to send a strong signal by appointing Planning Commission members with more knowledge about land-use and urban planning and fewer vested interests.

The commission doesn’t need building industry yes-men. It also doesn’t need neighborhood NIMBYs who reflexively oppose any new development — or any creative infill project that looks like change.

Planning Commission membership is true public service. Members aren’t paid. They meet nearly every week and make difficult and often controversial decisions. But they are supported by the research and expertise of a truly talented professional staff in the Division of Planning.

Traditionally, many commission members have come from special interest groups: builders, Realtors, bankers, farmers and neighborhood activists. Too often, though, some act as if they only represent those narrow interests.

That is a problem Council members should address by clarifying the responsibilities and ethical requirements of commission members. But Gray could help the situation now by appointing members who aren’t seen as partisans for one faction or another.

No matter whom Gray appoints, both pro-development and anti-development constituencies will still be well-represented on the commission. Realtor Karen Mundy and land appraiser Will Berkley are reliable and vocal advocates for more development. Farmers Frank Penn and Headley Bell stand up for rural concerns. Carolyn Plumlee watches out for the interests of neighborhoods.

What the Planning Commission needs are more members like its capable chairman, Bill Wilson, who can weigh all sides of development issues and make good decisions, but doesn’t have a dog in the fight.

The commission also needs more members who have planning education and expertise — and don’t have vested interests in local policy. That is especially true as the commission begins a process that will guide development decisions for decades to come.

If Gray wants to protect his legacy, he must find and appoint these people. The Planning Commission needs more expertise and more big-picture thinking, not more representatives of special interests.

A new three-minute flyover video of the proposed Town Branch Park gives people an idea of what the 10-acre park will look like.

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