Tom Eblen

Tom Eblen: Lexington's ordinances governing urban industry are inadequate

Rimroc Farm owner Bill Wofford is battling a neighbor he says has turned this adjacent Fayette County farmland into an industrial site without proper permits. Fayette County passed an ordinance 20 years ago to regulate mining and quarrying, but enforcement often has been lacking, says Don Todd, Wofford's attorney and a former Urban County Council member.   Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com
Rimroc Farm owner Bill Wofford is battling a neighbor he says has turned this adjacent Fayette County farmland into an industrial site without proper permits. Fayette County passed an ordinance 20 years ago to regulate mining and quarrying, but enforcement often has been lacking, says Don Todd, Wofford's attorney and a former Urban County Council member. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

People in Lexington have been fighting about land use since Indians and settlers went at one another with tomahawks and muskets.

Most modern conflicts involve suburban development and agricultural land — houses versus horses. But two recent cases highlight something that needs more attention from Lexington's Urban County Government: tension between farmland and rural industrial sites.

On Feb. 11, the city's Board of Adjustment will resume a hearing on Vulcan Materials Co.'s request to expand underground mining at a 52-year-old limestone quarry off Old Richmond Road. Many farm owners near the quarry oppose the expansion. They complain about blasting, dust and trucks. Some also fear that mining could damage nearby streams and ground water.

Lexington adopted an ordinance in 1991 to regulate quarries, but opponents of the expansion say city inspectors don't have the expertise or manpower to enforce it. Vulcan attorney Richard Hopgood said the state adequately regulates the quarry, which has a good record.

A more complicated case involves a dispute between Con Robinson and his neighbors off Georgetown Road on the other side of Fayette County.

Robinson said he has composted hay, straw and horse manure since the late 1980s on 113 acres where he also lives. The land is zoned agricultural, but Robinson has a city conditional use permit for composting.

He used to compost by making long rows of material on fields and turning them periodically. More than two years ago, though, Robinson began removing large amounts of soil and rock from his property, cutting as much as 20 feet into a limestone hillside.

Robinson is creating a 25-acre flat stone pad that will allow him to compost material year-round in one-third the time it took with the old method, he said, adding he must do that to compete with other local composters.

"This isn't a composting operation; it's an illegal quarry," said Bill Wofford, who trains horses on his Rimroc Farm beside Robinson's property. "That land is ruined; it can never be used again for agriculture."

Wofford and 18 neighbors asked the city last fall to stop what Robinson is doing. They complained that dust and noise from his property threaten their horses and that blasting has damaged their homes. Three real estate agents submitted letters saying Robinson's work lowers the value of surrounding farms.

Robinson said he has a grading permit and has followed the city's rules, including building berms and runoff ponds. At a Board of Adjustment meeting Oct. 29, city inspectors agreed that Robinson has done everything they asked.

The issue reached the board because inspectors told Robinson that if he wanted to sell material excavated from his land, he needed a quarrying permit. The board denied that request. Still, Robinson's grading permit allows him to continue moving rock and soil, so long as he doesn't sell it. He said that is what he plans to do, but it will take longer.

"I'm just trying to improve my property, flatten the site so it's workable year-around," said Robinson, who operates two other recycling centers in Lexington. "I'm in total compliance. I want to be a good neighbor."

Don Todd, a lawyer who represents neighbors fighting both Robinson and Vulcan, was an Urban County Council member in 1990 when the ordinance regulating composters was created. He said nothing like Robinson's excavating project was contemplated.

"We have an increasingly significant issue regarding the operation of quarries in the agricultural zone," Todd said. "We've got to get a handle on this stuff."

Knox van Nagell, executive director of The Fayette Alliance farmland preservation group, agrees.

She likens oversight of industrial operations in agricultural areas to the city's water-quality problems. For decades, city officials claimed they were adequately regulating development. Then, after a citizens' lawsuit, federal regulators fined Lexington $425,000 and are requiring the city to spend $300 million to improve sewer and drainage systems.

"Nobody wants to put these businesses out of business," van Nagell said. "But we have to be careful with how these industrial areas affect the larger community and the landscape."

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